When the internationally known artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth died suddenly in 1945 after a freight train struck his car at a crossing near the Wyeths” Chadds Ford home, the public spotlight suddenly shifted to his youngest child, Andrew, an emerging, moderately successful painter who at the time specialized in watercolors.
It was not an easy transition for the 28-year-old artist. He had three expressive older sisters who painted (brother Nate perhaps wisely became a scientist), and he had had quite a conflicted relationship with his father, who had himself taken on the mantle of master artist of the Brandywine from his famous mentor, Howard Pyle. Yet sometimes the death of a very dominant parent can be, for a young person, both a grievous loss and a sudden gift of freedom, a conflict that Wyeth himself best illustrated in his painting Winter, 1945. As he later recounted, the hill in the painting, covered by brown winter grass, represents his father, while Andrew is the boy running down that hill looking both terrified and joyously free.
It was not long before Andrew Wyeth became the dominant, most-recognized name to emerge from the local brew of Wyeths, Pyles, Schoonovers, and Hurds. Whether he wanted the honor or not, Andrew Wyeth, who died in his sleep in January at 91, was for more than 50 years the master of the Brandywine School of Realism.
He became a source of local pride as well as the fountainhead of a lucrative cottage industry that welcomed the hordes of bus-borne tourists who came to see the valley that inspired the master and to buy his prints. The Brandywine River Museum, which opened in 1971 a mile or so downriver from his home (the family also had a summer place in Maine), became his shrine. And thousands of local artists drew inspiration from his style, although few had Wyeth’s well-thought-out representation. He also appealed to collectors: his painting, Ericksons, sold for $10.3 million two years ago.
Wyeth himself could be quite personable and well spoken, but he preferred to keep mostly to his family and friends and concentrate on his art. He didn’t teach and seldom mentored. In fact, his son Jamie, himself an influential artist, was taught by his Aunt Carolyn, Andrew’s unpredictable and protective sister. In a conversation this past December, Jamie said that Carolyn and Andy were great friends and that she was his father’s “wild side” alter ego, which he kept largely under control in his paintings.
Look at any Andrew Wyeth painting and three things should come to mind. One is that behind all the generally somber realism is a private symbolism, which we understand only if Wyeth paused to explain it. Second, the finished painting, sometimes a watercolor but generally one executed in the very difficult medium of tempera, may look nothing like his first sketch, as Wyeth would go though many drawings and studies before arriving at the final work. Third is that Wyeth painted only what he knew well and had observed perhaps thousands of times.
The people who seemed to understand Wyeth best were his wife, Betsy, who survives him, and his long-time accomplice, George “Frolic” Weymouth. If his sister Carolyn, who died in 1994, was Andrew’s wildly flapping sail, Betsy was his rudder, masterfully managing his career through incredible highs and critical lows—he was the favorite whipping boy of abstract-worshipping New York critics—as well as the juicy tempest around his secret cache of nudes of neighbor Helga Testorf, years in the painting, which were suddenly brought to light in 1986.
Weymouth was the younger friend with whom Wyeth could discuss painting and who, as head of the Brandywine River Museum, served as his unofficial interpreter to the world at large. “N.C. was very close to my grandfather,” Weymouth recounted in an interview two years ago. “I was about 14 years old when my aunt took me to meet them. Andy said, “If you’re an artist, why are you still going to school?” We formed a bond. We would criticize each other’s work.” Weymouth stoutly puts Wyeth’s work on a par with Hans Holbein and Albrecht Durer.
Wyeth actively painted almost until his death, even working en plein air on bitter winter days. His last exhibit, a retrospective mounted in 2006 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Atlanta’s High Museum, carried some of these more-recent works.
With the last stroke of Andrew Wyeth’s brush, the artist’s marvelous reign closes. One son, Nicholas, is an art dealer, and his granddaughter, Victoria, sometimes conducts tours at the museum. Neither are artists. Jamie, now 62, seems confident of his own stature as a painter, but says he has no desire to lead a movement.
But, as Andrew once noted, if an artist is good enough, he lives on, even after his death. Andrew Wyeth’s influence and legacy, especially in the Brandywine, will continue unabated for generations.