When Andrew Wyeth died in 2009, he was already an American icon.
Wyeth’s Chadds Ford studio, where he painted many of his most important works from 1940 to 2008, was given by his wife, Betsy, to the Brandywine Conservancy. It is now open for public tours through November 18, 2012.
The structure was built as a schoolhouse in 1875 and purchased by father N.C. Wyeth in 1925. As N.C. had already become a successful artist, Andrew was given art lessons at home starting from the age of 15. The book Andrew Wyeth – A Secret Life by Richard Meryman explores the deep family roots and complex relationships that drove Andrew to create dozens of masterpieces over a 60-year career.
His hauntingly beautiful “Christina’s World” catapulted him to fame in 1948. Largely avoiding the highly abstract styles of his contemporaries, he staked his own ground with deft brushstrokes creating vivid portrayals of varied subjects. He received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990 and the National Medal of Arts from President Bush in 2007. Despite his fame, what inspired him to create his enduring legacy has been the subject of debate as the art world tries to assign him a ranking on the list of the greatest American artists.
Ironically, Andrew’s success was due partly to his moving sharply away from his teacher’s style. He later said “My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there’s another core – an excitement that’s definitely abstract.” Andrew boldly depicted striking landscapes – and mindscapes – empty rooms filled with underlying emotion. N.C. wrote him a letter in 1944 saying “The great men – Thoreau, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy – forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant … ” He told his son that to be a great artist requires emotional depth, to look beyond self to the subject with passion. N.C. died tragically in an automobile accident a year later. His death was a formative event in Andrew’s career.
Christine Podmaniczky is the curator of the new exhibit; she’s done a wonderful job. You immediately “feel at home” as you walk into the modest, white-painted house. Viewing the many photographs and posters around the home, one gets a sense that Andrew was happy here, with reminders of the people and things that brought joy into his life. Andrew’s love of films is shown with photos of Henry Fonda and Erroll Flynn on the wall. Images of fellow artist and brother-in-law Peter Hurd are also there, next to one of Wyeth’s neighbor Karl Kuerner, whose farm would become a subject for many of his paintings.
Andrew Wyeth loved natural light – and there’s plenty of it all around the house. The living room has a huge window along with three others bathing the area in a warm glow. His love of nature is present in rustic forms – a large, rugged wooden seat sits in the hallway and a long hardwood table with four chairs stands near an oversized fireplace in the kitchen. Jamie’s studio area is around the corner; sketches of Bobbie and Ted Kennedy flank Jamie’s famous portrait of JFK completed in 1965.
Wyeth’s studio is as stark as the landscapes he portrayed; unfixed cracks on the ceiling reveal his insistence on painting in an unpolished setting. A photograph of Betsy with her beautiful, smiling face is near a large rectangular mirror which seems to focus attention back on the visitor, saying, “What are you feeling when you view my work?” Photographs of three men who influenced him are on the adjacent wall – N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Peter Hurd, who introduced Andrew to the egg tempera method that would become his signature medium. The passion of Andrew’s life can be felt all around his studio. Stop by, walk through the rooms. Some of them are quite sparse, almost vacant – but you’ll feel his energy filling them all. The Andrew Wyeth studio opens to the general public on July 3, 2012; reservations for guided tours are required.
Gene Pisasale is an author based in Kennett Square. Two of his books – Lafayette’s Gold – The Lost Brandywine Treasure and Abandoned Address – The Secret of Frick’s Lock – are historical novels set in the Chester County area. His new book, The Christian Sanderson Museum – Tom Thompson Remembers, is a historical review of the life of Chris Sanderson, a close friend of the Wyeth family whose massive collection of artifacts is nearby in Chadds Ford.