When summer has long since given way to fall’s ombres and winter shadows, it’s a perfect time for a walk—and not necessarily at Longwood Gardens to view the glorious light show. In his new book, Artists of Wyeth Country: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth (Temple University Press, 192 pages), W. Barksdale Maynard has mapped out six trails around the region that pinpoint the settings that inspired the work of the three artists. “Andrew’s approach really was to go out in nature and forget you exist—disappear,” says Maynard. “That’s why no one could ever go with him. He’s got to be invisible.
Wyeth loved the colder months. “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the land—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter,” he’s been quoted as saying. “Something waits beneath it. The whole story doesn’t show.”
An Alabama native, Maynard has lectured on art and architecture at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities, and just a touch of a Southern lilt softens his voice. “[Wyeth explored] these hills and discovered in them what to us is a bleak, somber appearance,” he says. “That’s the root of his art—that somberness, brooding, almost troubling quality you get on a dark winter day.”
Caitlin LaPorte notes that this passion for the outdoors was a family affair. “If you look back through the history of art, nature’s always been a very prominent theme … And the Wyeths have a lot of landscapes,” says the director of the Chester County Art Association, which was founded by Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth.
Pyle and N.C. Wyeth were known best for illustrations that found their way into books.
Andrew didn’t become a cultural giant for continuing his dad’s vision. He pressed on in his own way. “He was the last great easel artist—an enigmatic figure,” Maynard says. “Wyeth seemed to have great appeal to people who had the prints on the wall and his books on the coffee table—the people who lived far away from museums. His work found its way into small-town libraries and dorm rooms. It exposed people to art who wouldn’t have been exposed to art. People from Mississippi, Tennessee—remote places like where I’m from. Wyeth was the guy who opened the world of art to these people.”
Maynard’s interest in the Brandywine Valley was piqued while writing a book on Delaware architecture for the well-regarded “Buildings of the United States” series. “So little has been written about the Brandywine, and it’s so culturally important for Delaware,” he says. “I wrote [2014’s] The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait, but I wasn’t quite satisfied, I thought there was more to be said about Andrew.”
“[Wyeth explored] these hills and discovered in them what to us is a bleak, somber appearance. That’s the root of his art—that somberness, brooding, almost troubling quality you get on a dark winter day.”
An expert on Brandywine Battlefield and Longwood Gardens, Maynard admits that personal curiosity figured heavily into the inspiration for Artists of Wyeth Country. Did the Chadds Ford countryside measure up to the landscapes he knew so well? Along with an unauthorized Wyeth biography taken from interviews with those who knew the artist, Maynard developed six tours that involve walking and driving. The images and illustrations include two maps commissioned for the book. “I blew up the maps for book signings,” he says.
Today’s Chadds Ford is “very different from N.C.’s and Andrew’s,” Maynard notes. As such, he wouldn’t recommend a bike tour in an area rife with narrow, winding roads often frequented by trucks and SUVs. “Andrew didn’t want us to come to Chadds Ford, per se,” he surmises. “But when we understand his art from his perspective, we learn to search for our own Chadds Ford.”
Maynard offers a hypothetical scenario to illustrate his point. “[Andrew] walks and he walks—no preconceptions. After two hours or whatever, he goes around a bend and there’s the sun on a tree or a hornets’ nest, and it hits like a thunderclap. That’s what he’s going to paint,” poses Maynard. “Anybody can go through nature and be ready for that kind of stimulus. It’s a good thing to do that.”