by Terry Conway
It’s a small structure built of fieldstone and clapboard, sacred ground that few were allowed to enter. A black and white sign at the entryway read: “I am working, so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.”
For seven decades the space was Andrew Wyeth’s private world. A spot where he created many of his most iconic works of art, including those inspired by the farms and open space of the Brandywine Valley that internationally stamped Wyeth as a best-selling, much-beloved artist, and America’s foremost realist painter.
On a steamy early July morning in 2012 a fife and drum corps dressed in colonial garb marched up Route 100 in the village of Chadds Ford, Pa. The firing of a 19th century cannon heralded the official opening with studio tours. George “Frolic” Weymouth cut the ceremonial ribbon.
“Andy would have loved it, simply loved it” said Weymouth, artist, founder of the Brandywine Conservancy and longtime friend of Wyeth.
An A-frame structure originally built as a schoolhouse in 1875, the structure was purchased by his father and celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth in 1925 when the school closed. After Andrew Wyeth married his wife, Betsy, in 1940 the structure became their home, where they raised their sons Nicholas and Jamie, as well as Wyeth’s art studio.
“Andy did a great job of keeping the place under wraps,” said Christine Podmaniczky, a curator at the Brandywine River Museum.
The family moved nearby in 1961 but Wyeth kept the location as his studio for the remainder of his life. After Wyeth’s death in January 2009, Betsy Wyeth donated the studio to the neighboring Brandywine River Museum which is famous for an unparalleled collection of works by three generations of Wyeths.
Extensive work was necessary before the building could open to tours. The River Museum worked with a team of specialized architects, trained in historic preservation, to maintain the integrity of the building and its legacy as the artist’s retreat.
“Structurally it was a mess,” Podmaniczky said. “The wood-shingled roof needed replacing, the foundation had to be stabilized and the chimney was pulling away from the rest of the structure. Every piece of the studio’s contents also was scrutinized, from the smallest paintbrush to the largest piece of furniture.
“We sent things out to conservators,” she said. “Everything was catalogued and numbered, all the artwork was copied and the copies were hung in the exact same places as the originals.”
Born in Chadds Ford on July 12, 1917, Andrew was the youngest child. A benevolent tyrant, N. C. dominated his five children– a clan that was an exceedingly eccentric and creative family. Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Carolyn Wyeth and Andrew were painters. Ann Wyeth McCoy was a composer and son Nathaniel was an engineer and inventor with many patents to his credit.
At age 15, Andrew began his artistic training in his father’s studio. At the nearby Kuerner farm he found subjects in the animals, buildings and landscapes for hundreds of works of art over more than 75 years.
Wyeth’s early watercolor landscapes, influenced by the work of Winslow Homer, met with enormous critical acclaim at his first one-man show at the William Macbeth Gallery in New York City in 1937. The entire inventory sold out in one day. His work took a different path, avoiding the highly abstract styles of his contemporaries. He created his own ground with deft brushstrokes creating vivid portrayals of varied subjects.
Extremely critical of his own work, the immediate success did not reassure Wyeth and he returned to his father’s studio for further concentration on technique. Wyeth soon began working in egg tempera, a renaissance technique introduced to him by his brother-in-law, the painter Peter Hurd.
At the studio Wyeth painted thousands of egg tempera paintings, drawings and dry brush watercolors in his spare and luminous evocations of rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine which attracted an enormous public following. The works range from the dark self-portrait “Trodden Weed” to his hundreds of secret Helga paintings, which generated worldwide publicity– including the covers of Time and Newsweek– and controversy when they were suddenly revealed in 1986.
Known for his complicated persona, dark depths and reclusive ways, the essence of Wyeth’s art is best expressed in his own words, “I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it…I always want to see the third dimension of something…I want to come alive with the object.”
His studio is just down the hill from his father’s studio. The contrast is striking. N. C.’s studio’s huge Palladian north facing windows still command what the artist called “the most glorious sight in this township.” Later additions provided space for mural painting. A stickler for accuracy and detail, the elder Wyeth filled the place with costumes, props and decorative objects for use in composing pictures that were so reflective of the golden age of illustration.
Andrew’s studio is smaller and more subdued. In the entranceway photographs of celebrity friends such as Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda and Wyeth fencing with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. line the walls. There are also pictures of fellow artist and brother-in-law Peter Hurd and Wyeth’s good friend Karl Kuerner whose farm he prowled for decades. Fencing masks sit on a windowsill while on a nearby wall, phone numbers are jotted down next to the telephone. The family lived here until 1961 so the lower floor and kitchen area have a 1950’s feel. Andrew, Betsy and the boys’ bedrooms on the second floor are off limits.
Tour guide Wawa Ingersoll walks visitors about Wyeth’s creative process. There are streams of shelves spotlighting art books, clusters of World War I uniforms and helmets, stacked film canisters, 1,250 military miniature figurines and an old projector. One focal point of the tour is Wyeth’s admiration of the “The Big Parade,” the 1927 war movie directed by King Vidor. Jamie Wyeth reveals that his father would routinely set up the projector and estimates he watched the film alone and with others more than 300 times. Its landscapes and other imagery were seen in many of Andrew’s pictures.
The room where the projector still stands also served as Jamie’s first studio, now a cordoned-off workspace, where he painted many of his early works, including Draft Age and his posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy.
The main room is where Andrew painted. The sketches and studies for his paintings are fixed to the unpainted plaster walls. Long cracks run across the ceiling, north facing windows usher in the best light. At his workspace you find a round stool, a paint-stained apron, an assortment of brushes as well as an immense mirror behind his painting station that lent a different perspective to his work.
Egg tempera, a thick mixture of yolks, pigment and distilled water, became his signature medium. Wyeth said that it forced him to slow down the execution of a painting and enabled him to achieve the superb textural effects that distinguish his work. An open egg crate sits next to the legendary artist’s palette.
“He always used Wawa extra-large eggs for his egg tempera,” Ingersoll said. “They had to be white eggs because he thought brown eggs had an oilier consistency.”
It’s all at his artist’s retreat, a spot that that inspired the genius of one of America’s best loved painters.
Wyeth at Work– Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, filmed Wyeth at work in 1993, This session took place at his sister Carolyn’s studio just up the hill from Andy’s studio. It is believed to be the only record of Wyeth painting. Hoving narrates. You can view it on You Tube www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QglPwQXrs0.