CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Five years after Andrew Wyeth’s death, stories about “America’s artist” still animate this little township at the intersection of Route 1 and the Brandywine River.
There’s the one about Wyeth painting a bonfire and picking up a piece of charred wood to take home to his studio, only to have it burst into flames in the back of his car.
The one about the evening he showed up, boyish-proud, at a friend’s dinner party, saying, “Look what I’ve got!” Out in the driveway sat a Stutz Bearcat – a celebrity sports car that he used to say he’d acquired in exchange for a painting.
There are stories about him flipping and rolling his snowmobile, and fencing with friends in his studio; about outings with buxom mannequins and a party with a headless skeleton; about how he collected toy soldiers, ordered his burgers rare and had a hug like he wouldn’t let go.
And about how when he died, dozens of cameramen and reporters showed up where he ate at Hank’s Place, wanting to know what it was like when Andy (because he insisted on being called “Andy”) came in with his longtime model, Helga Testorf.
Waitresses and mechanics, friends and neighbors relive memories through bursts of affectionate laughter and sudden silences. For many characters in the dramas that played out in these few square miles of suburbanizing Southeastern Pennsylvania still live nearby, including Helga and Wyeth’s wife of almost seven decades, Betsy.
“When each of us who knew him pass away, it’s going to lose that character,” says Dorothy “Dee” Parker, a retired elementary school art teacher whom Wyeth painted.
But the process of transforming a living icon into a historical one is already well underway.
NEW SHOW OPENING
At 92, Betsy Wyeth, who managed the business side of her husband’s career, has yielded that job to staffers in the Wyeth office, who helped organize the show opening May 4 at the National Gallery in Washington with guidance from the couple’s two sons.
Plans have not been unveiled about what happens to the thousands of works in her collection after Betsy dies. She has donated Wyeth’s studio to the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, which embraces her husband’s twin passions for art and the environment and is embarking on an ambitious program to educate people about the artwork and places he helped make famous.
Even as new generations are finding ways to continue what Wyeth stood for, there is the sense that the storytelling isn’t over, that his life, like the river he loved, contains secrets that are yet to surface from the undercurrents and backwaters.
Perhaps that’s not surprising for a man who exuded an aura of mystery and mischief and considered Halloween a favorite family holiday.
There was a “devilish” playfulness about him, according to Nancy Hoving, wife of Thomas Hoving, the late director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He liked to have secrets,” Hoving recalls, “so he could reveal them.”
The most famous of those was Helga, the married German housekeeper and mother of four whom Wyeth painted repeatedly between 1970 and 1985. Although certain people, including Hoving, were aware he had been working with a German model, the extent of the collection – some 240 works, including many nudes – startled the art world and almost certainly Wyeth’s wife. The “Helga Pictures” were a publicity coup, making headlines and news magazine covers and prompting a 1987 show at the National Gallery.
Helga continued to play a role in Wyeth’s life. She was his studio assistant and, as he aged, his companion and caretaker. Wyeth’s studio became what his artist son, Jamie, has called Helga’s “domain,” full of chaos and clutter, unlike the spareness of the renovated mill where Betsy lives on the other side of Route 1. Helga would often eat with Wyeth at the counter at Hank’s Place, and she spent summers at a family place in Maine.
“Andy loved the game of keeping her out of sight or pretending she wasn’t there,” Hoving remembers.
For all the gossip that ensued, Wyeth was accepted and admired in this community. Spending time with him “was too much fun,” remembers Andy Bell, a close friend who did odd jobs for Wyeth and shared his love of pranks. He was “down-to-earth and a little rascal, too,” remembers Lloyd Lisk, another longtime friend.
‘SUCH A KIND GENTLEMAN’
Wyeth was “such a kind gentleman” – as Vicki Sylvester, a waitress at Hank’s Place, puts it – that he was welcomed into his neighbors’ modest homes to sketch and paint their cracked plaster walls and the windows that will be the focus of the National Gallery exhibit, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In.”
“He was going into the houses of people who don’t have much money,” says Victoria Wyeth, the artist’s only grandchild. “You can’t be judgmental. They won’t invite you back.”
On the door of Wyeth’s studio, there’s a printed sign: “I am working, so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.”
Inside, the kitchen has been reconstructed to look as it did in the pre-Helga era of the 1950s, when the Wyeths lived there with their two young sons. There are toy soldiers on shelves, books in the library, a doll on a windowsill with her head broken off, and a human skeleton hanging in one corner. Strewn on the floor below Wyeth’s easel are copies of the many sketches he would make for each painting, smudged with footprints and dogs’ paw prints.
Visiting feels like intruding on the inner sanctum of this private painter – except, of course, that Wyeth is no longer here.
The business of breathing new life into the studio and surrounding landscape lies with Virginia Logan, who in 2012 took the top job of overseeing the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, succeeding someone who had worked there for 38 years. Logan, a lawyer with a corporate background and experience with nonprofits, represents new ambition for an organization that has already helped to preserve close to 60,000 acres of land and has an extensive art collection, as well as historic buildings, including Andrew Wyeth’s studio, his father N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio, and a farm less than a mile away where Wyeth frequently painted.
HOPING TO DOUBLE VISITORS
Logan wants to double the number of visitors to 200,000 a year. She plans to create walking trails and hands-on artistic and ecological experiences across the land. She aims to increase the institution’s international visibility, share the collection of some 4,000 works of art with broader audiences, spur young people’s interest in art and the environment, and take advantage of the proximity to attractions such as Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.
She hopes to do all this, she says, without losing the qualities that attracted the Wyeths here in the early 1900s.
Is there a tipping point in this balancing act of introducing people to places you are trying to preserve?
Logan’s response is considered, reflecting the competence and common sense that employees say she brought to the institution: “I think you’ll know it when you see it,” she says. “If the numbers impede the visitor experience, we’ll do something to address that, to keep the number of people at a level where they get a sense of place and not of being in a crowded place. We want to retain the magic.”
The first Wyeth to fall under that spell was Andrew’s father, Newell Convers Wyeth, who came to Chadds Ford as a student of Howard Pyle, founder of the Brandywine School. Pyle brought his proteges here for summers between 1898 and 1902 to work on the kind of narrative illustration of adventure and romance that was popular in books and magazines of the era.
When N.C. decided to settle here, Chadds Ford combined historic resonance as the site of the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War with rustic simplicity and the sophistication of the du Ponts, who’d built gunpowder mills and grand chateaux along the Brandywine. It was a seductive mix that continues to attract tourists and new residents today.
THE N.C. WYETH TRAGEDY
Directly across Route 1 from the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield is Ring Road. Drive a few hundred yards, down over Harvey Run and then up, and the road rises abruptly over a small hump. Ahead you can see a red bank barn and an austere white stucco farmhouse facing an open hillside – a sight familiar to anyone who knows Andrew Wyeth’s work.
But pause atop the hump and on the left among the tangle of roadside weeds you can see two rods of rusting metal – the remains of the Octoraro branch line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was here in 1945 that N.C. Wyeth was killed in a screeching, bloody concertina of station wagon and locomotive. His 3-year-old grandson and namesake, Newell Convers Wyeth, who was in the car with him, also died.
Nobody knows what happened – whether the car stalled on the tracks or N.C. had a heart attack. A theory developed that N.C. had committed suicide, taking the child with him. Some even say the boy was actually his son – the product of an affair with one of his daughters-in-law. That rumor persists today.
For Andrew Wyeth, in his late 20s and the youngest of N.C.’s five children, the personal tragedy was a professional awakening that cemented his commitment to the countryside.
“When he died, I was just a clever watercolorist – lots of swish and swash,” Wyeth said in a Life magazine interview 20 years after N.C.’s death. “I had always had this great emotion toward the landscape, and so, with his death … the landscape took on a meaning – the quality of him.”
That meaning took form in “Winter 1946,” Wyeth’s depiction of a boy racing out of control down the hill you see from the railroad crossing, pursued by his own dark shadow. From then on, Wyeth haunted the farm, painting its German immigrant owners, Karl and Anna Kuerner; painting the water trough in the barn (“Spring Fed”); painting a simple table set in front of a window (“Groundhog Day”); and, in the farmhouse’s low attic room with meat hooks in the ceiling, painting Helga. Again and again.
No surprise that when the region was under threat of rapid industrialization in the 1960s, Wyeth supported his friend and du Pont descendant George “Frolic” Weymouth in creating the conservancy, and that four years later he and Betsy were instrumental in founding the art museum, in which he remained actively involved until his death.
SHARING HER GRANDFATHER’S STORY
Across Route 1 and on the other side of the river from the museum is Chadds Ford Elementary – the school Wyeth’s sons attended. On a dank late-March afternoon, Vic Wyeth, 35, has come in to address a class of fourth-graders, telling them stories about her grandfather and how he painted the landscape they are being raised in. She’s not an artist herself, and she doesn’t like to visit her grandfather’s studio now that it’s a museum. But she speaks the way you’d imagine Andrew Wyeth painting. Full of energy, with thrusts and parries, and a generous spatter of his aphorisms.
“Art has no rules.”
“Believe in yourself.”
“I live to paint.”
The children are transfixed; their hands shoot up.
“We have ‘Christina’s World’ at home!”
“My parents have six of his paintings!”
The prints of America’s artist adorn the homes of the people who’ve moved to “Wyeth Country,” some following jobs and some in search of a simpler way of life. The population of Chadds Ford has grown to more than 3,000, from 700 in 1930 when Wyeth was a teenager. The change is felt in the posh new housing and the strip malls of “shoppes.”
“It’s horrible,” Karl Kuerner III, grandson of the German immigrant farmers, says of the development.
“I once asked Andy about that,” he continues, “about what his father and my grandfather would have thought. And, he said, ‘They’d be rolling in their graves.’ “
Kuerner, 57, has given away his inheritance to the conservancy – the red bank barn, the white stucco farmhouse and the land he loves but can no longer look after. His father, now 87, still bales the hay – not the big round bales that modern farmers make, but oblong bales tied with two rows of twine. Apart from the hay bales and a couple of Nubian goats, it’s no longer a working farm, though.
And Karl Kuerner III is not a farmer. He’s an artist, taught to paint by Andrew Wyeth’s sister Carolyn. He’s built himself a house on the hill with a studio on the top floor and a sweeping view down toward his grandparents’ place. An unfinished painting is propped on the easel. It shows his grandfather’s farm from the road, painted from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in.
There’s a poignancy to the scene, but Kuerner is philosophical, even excited about the change. “It would be a crime to see this place torn down and developed,” he says. “All along, it belonged to the art world,” he continues. As part of the conservancy and with Logan’s vision, the landscape will inspire future generations of artists, future members of the Brandywine School. Kuerner plans to teach art students at the farm this summer.
For all the obsession with Andrew Wyeth, his immense talent and prodigious output, the glamor and the mystery, five years after his death he is part of a much longer story.
“As time goes on, ‘the Wyeths’ will be in your rearview mirror,” Kuerner says.
Their stories will be shaped by the facts we know and the ones that have yet to emerge.
You can’t see the little white house called Zum Edelweiss from Kuerner’s studio. It’s a walk away, over the crest of the hill and just up from the railroad tracks where N.C. was killed.
It’s where Helga and her husband settled after they came to Chadds Ford in the 1960s. And it’s where reporters showed up 30 years ago to hunt for her when the “Helga Pictures” hit the news. The house, one of three on a shared driveway, looks a little unlived-in these days, though there’s a newish barn back there as well as a couple of cars and three white storage pods.
Now in her 70s, Helga sometimes shows up at the museum for lunch. But she rarely talks to reporters and didn’t respond to a phone call or a letter. Like the man who painted her, she is offered the kind of privacy this small town still affords.
“We always buffered them,” says Voula Skiadas, owner of Hank’s Place.
That doesn’t stop the speculation. Helga is known for taking notes, and some believe she’s writing a book. Others say she paints, and there is a 1988 Wyeth watercolor titled “Helga Painting,” though it’s not clear from the pose whether she is actually painting or perhaps reading.
Helga saves things, people say: She had to clear her clutter from the studio building before the museum took over, and she spends a lot of time sorting and storing it.
Lloyd Lisk, Wyeth’s old friend, helped her move, packing hats and shoes, news clippings and photos, magazines and books, from the kitchen, the basement, the upstairs. “A real potpourri,” he says. “Box after box after box.”
Helga is something of “a conservateur as far as Andy was concerned,” Lisk says. And then – like many other people who knew Wyeth well – he pauses.
“I’m not going to tell you all the secrets,” he says.
Washington Post staff writer Alice Crites contributed to this report.