This Family Is American Art Royalty

The Wyeth family—grandfather, father and son—has formed an unlikely legacy, painting the romance, desolation and quiet beauty of America’s land and people. In honor of Andrew Wyeth’s 100th birthday this month, we explore their vision, their controversies and their staying power

This Family Is American Art Royalty

Photography Jason Varney

Jamie Wyeth doesn’t act like a man who’s borne the brunt of a decades-long grudge. With a thicket of unruly grey-flecked hair and a broad, friendly face, the 71-year-old painter appears more bemused than angered over the vitriol that his family name can provoke amongst a certain school of art critics. Bounding out of his 1940s pickup truck near his family home in the bucolic Brandywine River Valley, in southeast Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s gilet and knickerbockers make him look more like a bygone gentleman farmer than a controversial contemporary artist. Only a spattering of blue paint on his fingernails suggests that he’s spent the morning in his studio. Born with “a silver paintbrush in his mouth,” as some have quipped, he is the third generation of Wyeths to embrace—and define—the realist lineage of American painting.

In fact, he has literally followed in his family’s footsteps, having grown up on the Chadds Ford farmland first bought by his grandfather N.C. Wyeth, one of the most prominent book and magazine illustrators of the early 20th century. N.C.’s work is colorfully seared into the imagination of many a young reader, due to a host of enduringly romantic images, from Treasure Island’s swashbucklers to The Last of the Mohicans’ Native American warriors. N.C.’s son, Andrew Wyeth, who grew up muddying his boots amid Chadds Ford’s rolling hills and creek valleys, turned to the more immediate landscape for inspiration, crafting darkly meditative portraits of his neighbors and equally intense depictions of their shared terrain—a farmer bathed in the early morning light that only cold winter can produce, a quiet doorway with a squall brewing in the distance. The end results are scenes that possess a dual sense of brute force and quiet beauty.

 

Three generations of Wyeths: N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth

This July marks the 100th anniversary of Andrew Wyeth’s birth, and a wealth of public events are planned to mark the occasion—from a new retrospective exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, exploring his painstaking process and featuring rarely seen work, to the issuing of a series of 12 commemorative stamps by the United States Postal Service, each featuring one of Wyeth’s strikingly iconic scenes.

“In a way, Wyeth was not unlike Andy Warhol, in that very few others had that kind of popular appeal and name recognition,” Adam Weinberg, director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, told The New York Times. “In many aspects we can say it was the two Andys who were probably the most prominent figures in American art in the last century.” Yet prominence didn’t necessarily lead to critical acclaim. By the late 1970s, Warhol had gained grudging acceptance from even his fiercest detractors; trends were shifting and yesterday’s rebels were becoming the new institutional gatekeepers. Those same cultural changes, however, were branding Wyeth a living relic.

In 1976, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced an upcoming retrospective of Wyeth’s work, the museum’s own curator of 20th century art, Henry Geldzahler, refused to have anything to do with planning it. Confronting the museum’s director, he acted as if he were taking a moral stand. “He had nothing new to show us,” Geldzahler huffed, in reference to Wyeth’s stylistic realism. In Geldzahler’s view, there were two opposing camps within the art world: an avant-garde that pushed boundaries, and a reactionary crew that was small-minded and stuck on figuration.

Andrew Wyeth was clearly in the figurative camp. For those picking sides, his son Jamie was guilty by aesthetic association.

Andrew’s passing in 2009 at the age of 91 revealed no consensus over his legacy. Front-page obituaries across the country were filled with dueling critical claims. To some he was an artistic titan of the postwar era, producing a profoundly moving body of work. To others he was merely a purveyor of “corny Americana,” lacking in true depth. The centennial provides an opportunity to break free of this debate and examine Andrew Wyeth’s work with fresh eyes.

“I don’t want to dictate to people what they should see,” Jamie Wyeth says of his father’s artwork. But he’s also emphatic about what they shouldn’t see—namely, greeting-card-ready still lifes. “I always think that people forget what a strange painter my father was. He took a lot of knocks in his life, when people said his work was too accessible, or too easy to tune into. But this is a very odd world he’s painting.”

 

Andrew Wyeth’s beguiling Christina’s World, 1948

Case in point: Christina’s World, Andrew’s career-establishing painting from 1948, now hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, continues to intrigue visitors with its depiction of a prone woman twisted away from the viewer, looking towards a distant farmhouse. The figure was based on a real woman, Anna Christina Olson, who lived near the Wyeth family’s summer home in Maine, and who suffered from a polio-like condition which left her essentially paralyzed from the waist down. Yet Olson never let that limit her mobility, even as she refused to use a wheelchair. She cared less about what her neighbors thought.

But beyond the painting’s biographical background, as well as its dazzling, almost photo-like brushwork, Christina’s World is a Rorschach test. Viewers standing side-by-side find it either disturbingly eerie or placidly comforting, a study in haunting isolation and longing or an evocation of Arcadia. For Jamie, it is the statement of an outsider. “It’s a very edgy painting—she is dragging herself across a field,” he says. The emotional ambiguity, he says, is central to its enduring power.

“I always think of Robert Frost,” Jamie continues, citing Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. “On one level, it’s a poem about a horse pulling a sleigh through the snowy woods. But if you really read that poem, it’s very strange, almost threatening.” He recites its crescendo with a raised eyebrow:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Just as Frost’s accessible prose and wholesome imagery belie the ending’s ominous ambiguity, Wyeth’s own allegedly facile style and seemingly all-American subject matter can be equally misleading. With a shrug Jamie concludes, “Robert Frost became America’s poet just like Andrew Wyeth became America’s painter—for all the wrong reasons. Frost’s poem isn’t just about a sleigh ride. And Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, if you really look at them, are pretty chilling.”

 

An N.C. Wyeth illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island entitled All day he hung round the cove, or upon the cliffs, with a brass telescope, 1911

As for Jamie’s own approach, and the influence of Andrew and N.C., “I’m a funny mix of the two. What I get from my father is that ‘burrowing in’ thing, the idea that you create your own world.” That has led to him mirroring his father’s fascination with Chadds Ford, producing his own engrossing landscapes, and often returning to paint the same vista year after year. “There’s no way I could work in a place I didn’t know,” he says. “Then you just end up doing postcards”—he mimics a camera shutter—“click, click, click. The more you’re familiar with a place, the deeper you go. I feel like I could live here two lifetimes and still not break the surface.”

It is, however, simplistic to reduce Jamie to a case of “like father, like son.” If Andrew’s palette often seemed to rely on 50 shades of gray, Jamie unabashedly embraces color (not unlike N.C.’s own full-throttled use of it). Jamie is also inclined to see whimsy where his father sees menace; in Jamie’s hands, animals become anthropomorphic—his pet pig flashes a mischievous smile, while a tiny white dog tucked into an antique baby carriage snarls.

 

Jamie Wyeth’s First in the Screen Door Sequence, 2015, one of several portraits of his elusive fellow artist Andy Warhol

If Jamie’s style is less a departure from his father than a revision, he has made one notable break. Like Andrew, his portraiture revolves around his circle of friends. But starting in the 1970s, that circle has included a depiction of celebrities—from Ted Kennedy to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudolf Nureyev to Andy Warhol—that would have been anathema to Andrew. However, Jamie never lets his subject’s fame cloud his vision. His take on Warhol is unsparing, capturing a vulnerability rarely seen in images of the artist. In fact, it’s a vulnerability which Warhol himself went to great lengths to mask behind dark sunglasses, a fright wig and coyly inarticulate responses to even the most mundane questions. This reveal makes Jamie’s portrait all the more striking.

“There was a bit of competition between my father and me, which I miss,” Jamie says, leading the way inside his former Chadds Ford studio—originally his childhood home before Andrew Wyeth’s success allowed the family to move into a larger house. The two shared this cottage-cum-studio once Jamie finished sixth grade and was allowed to leave school to concentrate entirely on painting. Mornings were reserved for a tutor, afternoons for the studio. The line between teacher and student quickly began to blur. “It wasn’t really articulated, but I felt it,” Jamie says of this budding rivalry. After all, “we worked almost side by side,” each in an adjoining room.

Their early 1960s setup is essentially frozen in time for the benefit of visitors to the nearby Brandywine River Museum of Art. About the only thing missing is the collection of albums by the classical composer Jean Sibelius. “The record player was in my room. He’d turn Sibelius up to top volume—I had to wear cotton balls in my ears to block the sound out,” Jamie recalls with a chuckle.

That soundproofing was often necessary even when the record player was off. “My father, when he worked, was a wild painter,” Jamie continues. “He would throw things, step on them, yell out—water would spill, paint would fly all over the place. Finally, after all the wildness, he’d distill it down. I think he was aware of the danger of getting too absorbed in details.”

 

The Wyeth studio

Still, Jamie admits the Wyeth he initially admired most was his grandfather N.C., who died a year before he was born in 1946 and whose own studio remained filled with the props he used to inform his pirates, cowboys and infantrymen. “N.C. Wyeth was bigger than life,” Jamie remembers. “As a child I would go and spend hours in N.C.’s studio. It was filled with costumes and swords, and a lot of his original illustrations. I would spend hours recreating battles and then I’d come back here and my father would be painting some dead crow in a field.”

For Jamie, a true appreciation of his father’s art came in the 1980s with a series popularly known as “the Helga pictures.” Andrew labored in secret for 15 years to produce nearly 250 portraits of Helga Testorf, a woman who worked in Chadds Ford as a cook and housekeeper for Andrew’s sister. Many of the portraits were nudes and filled with a beguiling eroticism—their public unveiling in 1986, and the declaration by Andrew’s wife to a reporter that they were done out of “love,” was the art world’s version of a ménage à trois. Their subsequent sale to a single collector for $6 million (then an unheard-of amount for new paintings) landed Andrew on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, further cementing Andrew’s status as a bona fide art star. Lost in the resulting media hubbub, as the Helga pictures drew record crowds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was the otherworldly quality of the work itself.

Jamie said he only saw the Helga paintings a few years before the public did, when his father began to worry about their reception and panicked “that something would happen, that they’d be destroyed. He had me take some to my farm and hide them.” Upon seeing this body of work for the first time, Jamie was stunned. “It’s not just a couple nudes. It’s not even 30. It’s hundreds! Of the same person! He became obsessed. And he loved doing it in secret. He did many of them in the cellar of his father’s studio, and I think he could sense his father’s disapproval—which made it even more exciting for him.” He adds, with an awed shake of his head, “He didn’t need people to see them. He knew he was on to something, he just didn’t know when to stop. What the hell is this all about? What urge triggered him? When he first showed them to my mother, her reaction was the same as mine: How remarkable!”

That sense of wonder is what endures today, not only with the Helga series but also with the best of Andrew’s other paintings. For art lovers who came of age long after the bitter back-and-forth between warring partisans of abstract expressionism and realistic figuration, these works, as well as N.C.’s and Jamie’s, can simply be appreciated on their own merits.

“Unlike any other discipline, painting is the most individual,” says Jamie. “It’s a stick with some hair on its end, and some sticky stuff you apply to a piece of cloth. With music you need an orchestra. But painting is very simple and very individual.”

Indeed, shorn of critical baggage, the Wyeth family’s visual legacy brims with psychological complexity, rich in emotional resonance. Ultimately, it is a testament to the enduring power—in our digital age, no less—of channeling an artistic vision through the most primitive of instruments—a paintbrush.

 

Rooms With a View

The Brandywine River Museum of Art

The Brandywine River Museum of Art, housed within a renovated 19th century grist mill, is home to over 4,500 artworks by N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, as well as works by kindred realists such as Howard Pyle and George Weymouth. The original goal was to preserve the Brandywine region so dear to Andrew Wyeth’s heart. “My mother then said, ‘If you build something, I’ll fill it with paintings,’” notes Jamie. Today, the land conservancy keeps over 62,000 acres looking much as they did decades ago, when Andrew immortalized this landscape in tempera.

This summer’s special exhibition, “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,” features over 100 of his works, many rarely seen in public. “I hope this show will chip away at the mythological nonsense that has encased itself around Andrew Wyeth, to the point where curators can’t see beyond the biographical stuff,” says museum director Thomas Padon. “It’s gotten in the way of the art. For those who think they know Andrew Wyeth, I’m hoping this show is going to be a reset button.”

“Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,” runs until September 17; brandywine.org