December 2015

Wyeth Country

Past, Present, and Future

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Admiration for the work of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) led Louis Torres and me to make a second pilgrimage last year to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania-- the small town just an hour from Philadelphia where he was born and spent his entire life, apart from summers in Maine. Like our first visit in 2006, the 2014 trip was a richly rewarding experience, which we recommend to anyone who already knows and loves Wyeth's art, or who would like to learn more about it.

As the youngest son of N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945)--one of America's greatest illustrators and an accomplished painter in his own right--Andrew drew lifelong inspiration from the people and places of Chadds Ford. N.C. had first traveled to the area from his home in Massachusetts in 1902, to study with Howard Pyle (1853-1911), "the Father of American Illustration," in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.

When he married, in 1906, he decided to settle in Chadds Ford, buying property with the earnings from his first major commission--his now-classic illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. There the couple raised a remarkably talented and close-knit brood of two sons and three daughters (all three of whom were artists). Andrew became by far the most famous.

In the spacious Wyeth homestead (more on which below) with its idyllic view of the rolling greensward of Chadds Ford, Andrew was born and raised. A precociously talented but sickly child, he was home-schooled and trained in art by his somewhat tyrannical (albeit loving) father, who kept a tight rein. Far from rebelling against such a cloistered childhood, however, Andrew chose to remain within the familial circle. He nonetheless managed to develop his own distinctive style as an artist, a pole away from the bold dramatics characteristic of his father's imagery.

Since the subjects Andrew chose to paint were so often close to home, one can visit many of the sites depicted in his work and observe the subtle ways in which he selectively transformed reality into art. One example is Spring Fed (1967), depicting a well in an anteroom of the Kuerner barn. The docents who guided us through the sites were highly informative, with evident appreciation for their subject. (Wawa Ingersoll's tour of Andrew's studio was especially engaging. Inquire if she is conducting any of the tours on the day you plan to attend and work hers into your schedule if possible.)

In addition to the studio itself, a highlight for us was Andrew's personal library, a small room stacked with works by and about the writers and artists he most admired. We were not surprised to learn that two of our favorite American painters, Thomas Eakins (see "Painting Pure Thought") and Winslow Homer, were among them, as well as Albrecht Dürer, a towering artist of the German Renaissance. How we wished we could have spent several hours there, leafing through those volumes!

Visiting Chadds Ford

To do justice to the various sites listed below, visitors should plan to spend at least one full day at Chadds Ford--ideally two, with an overnight at a local B&B or historic inn. If two days, aim to see N.C.'s home and studio, then Andrew's studio, on the first day; and the Koerner farm, the next, with visits to the museum galleries on both days (guided tours are not required in the museum).

The Museum

The Brandywine River Museum of Art is an excellent little museum well worth a visit, especially for its galleries devoted to the work of Andrew and N.C. Wyeth and to the illustrations of Howard Pyle, N.C.'s famed teacher (of less interest in our view is the work of Andrew's son, Jamie, on which see below). The museum is beautifully installed on the bank of the historic Brandywine (the site of an early battle in the Revolutionary War), in a handsomely renovated and expanded nineteenth-century structure that formerly served as a grist mill. Casual dining at the museum café, with its lovely view of the river, offers the possible added pleasure of watching canoes glide by.


Guided tours of the sites below are managed by the museum, and depart from there by jitney. The museum is open year-round. But the tours ended on November 22 and will not resume until April 1, 2016.

* N.C. Wyeth House & Studio - Standing in the house's well-furnished great room or its narrow, colonial-style dining room, one can easily imagine the lively interaction of this multi-talented family. The grandly windowed studio, replete with many of its original props, also comes alive with the ghosts of the past.

* Andrew Wyeth Studio - Far more modest than his father's capacious workspace, this building originally served not only as Andrew's studio but also as his first home with his wife, Betsy. Andrew continued to use the studio throughout his life whenever he was in Chadds Ford. The sign he eventually hung outside the studio to guard against intrusion remains there: "I AM WORKING SO PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB. I do not sign autographs."

* Kuerner Farm - Many of Andrew's best-known works were inspired by Karl and Anna Kuerner--the reclusive German immigrants who owned this farm--and by their nineteenth-century house and barn. Docents provide substantial insight into the ways in which the painter subtly transformed his subject matter--testimony to the fact that all true art, however realistic in style, is a selective re-creation of reality.

Changing of the Guard at Brandywine

For most of its half century of existence, the Brandywine River Museum has been a modest regional museum largely isolated from the artworld's avant-garde tendencies, and apparently content to be so. Founded in 1971, it was under the prudent stewardship of its first director, James H. Duff, for nearly four decades, until his retirement at the end of 2011. Its focus has been on art by the Wyeths (as well as by N.C.'s mentor, Howard Pyle), and on essentially traditional work by other artists inspired by the Brandywine landscape. Duff's role in greatly expanding the museum's collection, and in the acquisition of the key sites noted above, is summarized in "End of an Era at Brandywine River Museum . . .," Delaware Daily Times (December 26, 2010).

Following the death of Andrew Wyeth in 2009 and Duff's departure in 2011, however, a new era appears to have been initiated by the Brandywine trustees, with the hiring of Thomas Padon as director. Formerly with the Vancouver Art Gallery (one of Canada's largest museums), Padon is a specialist in early modern art--the very antithesis of work by nineteenth-century realists such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and John Singer Sargent (three of the American painters most admired by Andrew Wyeth).

Padon's advent does not bode well. Since beginning his tenure as director in September 2012, he has mounted two exhibitions of work by a "conceptualist photographer" (a postmodernist category if ever there was one)--Things Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs and Gradients [more]. Both represent a marked departure from the traditional work customarily presented by the Brandywine. Most egregious was Gradients, an installation of abstract "sculptures" at various sites on the museum's 200-acre Chadds Ford campus.

And those exhibitions were just a start. Next year the museum will mount "Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City," exploring "the adaptation of modernist styles to subject matter associated with the American countryside," and illustrating "the dispersal of canonical modernist styles such as Cubism and Fauvism as well as the translation of these idioms into an American vernacular modernism."

The painting featured in the publicity for that exhibition is The Drowning (1936), a dramatically turbulent land and sea scape by N.C. Wyeth. It remains to be seen how radically "modernist" the other works in the exhibition will be, however.

Nor does Padon's vision for how best to mark the centennial of Andrew's birth in 2017 inspire optimism. His stated goal is to "bring a new generation of scholarship to Wyeth's work" that will usher in "new areas of research." To that end, I fear, he may turn to examples like the essay by Patricia Junker (Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum) for the recent volume Rethinking Andrew Wyeth.

Junker points to superficial similarities between Wyeth's nudes and work by the avant-garde trickster (my assessment, not hers) Marcel Duchamp. But she ignores profound differences between both the men and their work. Wyeth's nudes are indeed erotically charged, as she argues. But Duchamp's peep-show installation Étant donnés, to which she compares them, is sheer pornography.

Both Padon's background and his Brandywine tenure thus far suggest that the "new generation" of Wyeth scholarship he envisions may encompass such work of highly dubious value.

Lamentably, it is clear that the avant-garde has gained a foothold in Wyeth country (as further evidenced by a recent link on the Brandywine Museum's website homepage to the obituary for an archmodernist, Ellsworth Kelly). In that respect, the Brandywine Museum resembles other venerable art institutions that have betrayed their essentially traditional origins by embracing the avant-garde--an unfortunate trend that is the subject of a book in progress by Louis Torres to be called Trust Betrayed. As he has found, those institutions include Chesterwood, the summer estate and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French; the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (home of the founder of the Hudson River School of painting); Olana (the home of Cole's most prominent student, Frederick Church); the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum; the Morgan Library & Museum; and the Frick Collection--whose 2014 exhibition Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection included postmodernist work by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha as backdrops for the bronzes. (For avant-garde work at Olana and the Thomas Cole site, see the recent exhibition River Crossings; at the Morgan Library, Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions. See also my blog posts "Folded Paper and Other Modern 'Drawings'" and "Cy Twombly in Mr. Morgan's House?.")

Will Chadds Ford and the Brandywine River Museum still be worth visiting? Of course. Not only to appreciate Andrew Wyeth's work more fully but to enjoy laudable future exhibitions such as Masterworks of Hudson River Painting, which will open in March 2016. So by all means visit in person or online. But don't hesitate to express your displeasure at any avant-garde intrusions--as Torres himself has done, albeit with disconcerting results.*

* Note: On July 28, 2015, Louis Torres posted a comment on a Brandywine Facebook Page item regarding "An interesting article from NEWSWORKS about James Welling and [the] upcoming exhibition, Things Beyond Resemblance: James Welling Photographs." The Newsworks article ("Photographer Unites Homage to Andrew Wyeth with Exploration of Color at Chadds Ford") showed a picture of "conceptualist photographer" James Welling shooting a photo in Andrew's studio, and began: "The paintings of Andrew Wyeth and the rooms they were painted in have inspired an abstract art installation at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania."

As Torres commented, his "heart sank" when he read those words, because they reminded him of River Crossings, the then-current exhibition of "contemporary art" in the homes of two other painters he reveres, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church (about that exhibition, see above). The original post-- along with comments by Torres and other readers--is now mysteriously missing from the Brandywine's Facebook page, but can still be accessed as a hidden post.

For Further Reading and Viewing
Compiled by Louis Torres

On Andrew Wyeth

* Andrew Wyeth obituary, by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, January 16, 2009.

* "In Pennsylvania, Exploring Wyeth's World," by Geraldine Fabrikant, New York Times, May 24, 2013.

* "A Look Inside Andrew Wyeth's Private World," by Terry Conway, Delaware Daily Times, August 2, 2012.

* "Art as an Expression of Love," by Sam Torode, The American Enterprise, January 2002. (Select "Full Screen" in the "PDF Size" drop-down menu.) An especially insightful account based, in part, on a visit with Wyeth in Chadds Ford.

On N.C. Wyeth

* N.C. Wyeth Biography - a revealing excerpt:

"Despite his fame as an illustrator, Wyeth yearned to be known as a painter. The distinction between painting and illustration was an important one, with illustration carrying a pejorative connotation that Wyeth felt keenly all his life. Even though the commissioned work earned him income to support his family, he tried to escape the confines of textual limitations with personal paintings that included landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. From lyrical landscapes in an Impressionist style to powerful portraits of fishermen that recall the work of the American Regionalist artists, Wyeth experimented throughout his career with a wide variety of subjects and styles. However, he never did attain the personal satisfaction or public recognition that he sought."

* N.C. Wyeth Catalogue Raisonné [more], by the Brandywine River Museum

On Jamie Wyeth

* "Sentiment Trumps Substance in 'Jamie Wyeth' at MFA," by Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe, July 17, 2014.

* "Jamie Wyeth at Boston's MFA--Liberally Peppered with Shlock," by Franklin Einspruch, The Arts Fuse, July 31, 2014.

Both Smee and Einspruch acknowledge Jamie's skills as a painter and identify his ultimate shortcomings. To quote Smee:

[Is] it a body of work worthy of such lavish treatment in one of the world's great museums?

I'm scratching my head. Wyeth, who has just turned 68, can paint. He can draw. He has lived an interesting and impressive life. But what's missing from this show, which covers six decades and is made up of more than 100 oils, watercolors, drawings, and even a couple of humorous tableaux vivant, is a sense that it all adds up to something original--something that goes beyond the frisson of family gossip, the sentimentality of a compelling life story, or the romance of a storied place.

Well said.

On James Welling

* "Destination Art: James Welling and Pennsylvania's Brandywine River Valley," Art in America, Previews, August 17, 2015. (See also comments by Louis Torres.)

* "Welling on Wyeth," by Aimee Walleston, Art in America, September 27, 2012.