Photographs by Jim Graham
A lot of people would consider a chance to display their art before a grateful audience as a tremendous opportunity. First and foremost, it’s a chance for others to see how they look at the world—and there may even be a little money in it.
It’s not so much fun for Victoria Wyeth. “I’m pretty shy about my photography,” she says.
Her trademark energy and drive were evident in the images in that 2018 gallery show in Philadelphia—even if her passion for the event and the process was low. She simply couldn’t muster the enthusiasm necessary to sell something that was such an intimate manifestation of herself. “I felt like a hooker,” Wyeth confides.
So much for exhibitions. Andrew Wyeth’s only granddaughter doesn’t need them to fan her ego, or to give her the sense that she’s providing a modern generational link to her family’s considerable artistic legacy. She’d rather keep photographing life as it happens—in black and white. “I hate color photos,” she says.
Her love of “Andy” is evident when she speaks to audiences at the Brandywine River Museum of Art and venues throughout the country. She discusses his art, his influences and those he inspired. But Wyeth doesn’t approach her lectures as merely an art historian. She’s less concerned about describing the work than she is with introducing the man. “I want people to know how much he loved life,” Wyeth says. “There wasn’t enough time in the day for him to paint. I’m trying to teach people who he is as a person.”
It’s instructive to learn who Andrew’s grandchild is, too. She’s the daughter of Nicholas Wyeth, Andrew’s oldest son, and his wife, Jane. Both are enmeshed in the art world in New York City. She’s a breast cancer survivor and a psychologist. She’s also divorced with no kids, runs four miles a day near her Philadelphia home, and loves to cook for family and friends. Anyone who meets her gets the impression that her daily clock could use a few more hours. Her energy level is astounding—simply ask anyone who’s tried to keep up with her during a workout.
Wyeth is as blunt as she is vibrant. And she loves what she does, no matter what she might be doing. Mostly, she loves introducing her family’s work to anyone. “There are people who may be inclined to appreciate Andrew and Jamie Wyeth’s work and the nature of their work, and they’ll enjoy Vicky’s talks,” says film director Adam Salky, who’s known Wyeth since seventh grade. “But someone not expecting to spend the afternoon in a museum will enjoy themselves, too.”
Wyeth has spoken to prisoners, nursing home residents and schoolchildren. She addressed the 2017 Judicial Conference for the First Circuit Court of Appeals, a presentation attended by Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Stephen Breyer. She understands art’s power and how it can serve as a gateway to discussions of difficult topics. Andrew had a friend who died of alcoholism, and it affected him greatly. Wyeth talks to audiences about that, in an attempt to present addiction’s toll. “If I get through to 20 of 1,000 people I speak to, I’ve done my job,” she says.
Some people might resent being charged with propagating their family legacy. Not Wyeth. She covets the role and enjoys the opportunity to educate people about her grandfather, his father—famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth—and her uncle, Jamie. She introduces them to others on her terms, not as someone whose life is tied completely to some ancestral mandate. “When you come from a famous family, you can change who you are or be true to yourself,” she says. “I choose the latter.”
It was Christmas morning. Victoria Wyeth was doing what she’d done for several years—visiting the women she worked with at Norristown State Hospital before gathering with her family. All were victims of violent sex crimes. As Wyeth was leaving, one of the women looked at her and said, “Going home.”
Victoria Wyeth would rather keep photographing life as it happens—in black and white. “I hate color photos,” she says.
That’s all. A flat statement. But it crippled Wyeth. “I went into my car and cried my eyes out,” she says. “That was it. It was too hard.”
So Wyeth shifted her focus to men who’d either experienced sexual trauma or were perpetrators of sexual violence. It was a long way from her New York City upbringing, summers in Maine with family members, a Bates College liberal arts education, and subsequent graduate work at Harvard and Wesleyan universities. Still, Wyeth immersed herself in her work—until breast cancer put a halt to things.
Diagnosed in May 2016, Wyeth stopped working at the hospital in April of the following year. Her treatments sapped her strength, but the news that the cancer might be back was even tougher. Wyeth opted for a “prophylactic double-mastectomy” but later discovered that her cancer hadn’t returned. Healthy, she started working again in May 2018 in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania. She was as a research assistant for Dr. Aaron Beck, the man who invented cognitive behavioral therapy. “He’s a big fan of Andy,” she says.
Wyeth has plenty of fans, too—most notably Salky, whom she met at a dance, and Dave Golden, a musician and composer for TV shows and movies. Golden, a fellow student at the Dalton School in Manhattan, says his longtime friend’s social predilections tend toward dinner parties, where she can interact with everyone in a smaller group. “She’d like to find five or six people she can be genuine and loose and free with,” says Golden. “If you’re lucky enough to be one of those people, you’re going to have a helluva lot of fun.”
Not that Wyeth is out of her depth at larger gatherings. “She has an infectious laugh,” says Salky. “You hear it from across the room, and you want to go talk to her.”
Wyeth is also a Halloween fanatic whose costumes are always first-rate and as authentic as possible. Salky remembers her going to one party as Uncle Fester from The Addams Family. “She went all the way,” he says, laughing.
For a time, Wyeth lived in Chadds Ford, Pa. She was with her grandfather and his wife, Betsy, when each died. “I do feel that it was one of my purposes in life to have helped my grandparents transition to death,” she says.
Wyeth has packed plenty into her own relatively short life. “Cancer woke me up. If I get sick again, I’m going to kick cancer’s ass. It’s not going to kick my ass,” she says.
Still, Wyeth isn’t afraid of death. “If I die, I’ll be sad,” she says. “But at the same time, I have no regrets.”