A private tour at the Brandywine River Museum of Art
I never met Andrew Wyeth. I wish I had. I’ve admired his work for 30 years and he has greatly influenced my life and paintings. Wyeth is quoted as saying "emotion is the bottom line of art” and it resonates with me. I want my work to imbue the sense of emotion that moves me and to evoke that response in viewers of my paintings, just like he did.
So when I have an opportunity to visit one of the major museums housing a Wyeth collection, I don’t hesitate. But the journey this weekend was no ordinary trip. My son Jordan and I were invited to stay at the home of Jack and Barbara Cassidy, who live near the Brandywine River Museum of Art, and to tour the museum with Director Virginia Logan, their friend. Ginny is director of both the museum and the Brandywine Conservancy, a dedicated group who are determined to preserve the beauty of the surroundings that nurtured the Wyeth family for generations, and to offer it for an appreciative public to enjoy.
Jack is an art lover. When I asked him how he got started on such a journey, he told me of growing up in Stockbridge, MA where he and his cousin watched Norman Rockwell paint in his studio. Jack did not end up a painter, but has invested much effort in cultivating opportunities for young people who want to work in all facets of the arts. With a background as a college dean, the president of a major clothing brand, and years spent working for Nancy Hanks at the NEA, he knows much about what it takes to develop an artistic career and is glad to do what he can to help others move ahead.
Ginny was very warm and welcoming from the start. As the morning developed and we moved from museum to Andrew’s studio to the NC Wyeth home, her enthusiasm swelled like that of a youngster with secret places she was dying to show off. We started at the schoolhouse, the converted building on the Wyeth property that served as home for NC’s daughter Henriette and her husband Peter Hurd, then as home and studio for a young Andrew and his bride Betsy. Ginny enjoyed revealing not only the facts about the life they lived in this picturesque artist’s residence, but how much effort the museum has invested in preserving or restoring it to its original state. Finding a Frigidare refrigerator with just the right shaped handle to match the one that Nicholas Wyeth remembered was a worthwhile venture when the unit was finally installed in the restored kitchen and the curved housing fit just right into the recess in the wall where the original stood.
The kitchen where Andrew brought over friends to see a completed painting, the little library filled with books, posters, and cans of old Errol Flynn film reels, the costume closet, the big open school room where he used to project old movies on the wall were just preludes to the final objective, the inner sanctum, Andrew’s studio itself. Ginny opened the door as if she were pressing a hidden switch that revealed a secret passageway.
The room was like Wyeth’s work, “treating truth as a form of honor.” Rough, messy, distressed, disheveled… Ginny told us this is exactly the way he wanted it. “Betsy would paint the walls of the home each year, but she was never allowed to touch the studio.” She was pleased to tell us that the museum even took the crumbling ceiling apart, reinforced the structure with new beams, then put the decayed overhead back together to accurately resemble the way it was when he last used it. Ginny encouraged me to step around the drawings on the floor and get closer to his easel so I could examine the tools, the paints, the instruments laid out as they were when he was painting. I cannot tell you how mesmerized I was by what I saw. This was Andrew’s life, his work space, his creative energy engaged at its height and I was allowed to step into that space and experience a small, quick glimpse of what it was like. I can’t begin to describe all that it meant to me.
The tour continued to NC Wyeth’s studio with Ginny showing the same enthusiasm at revealing the scene behind the curtain. Once inside that massive space bathed in the north light effused through the enormous windows, you felt like you could paint anything under the inspiration seeping up through the floors.
Walking over to the easel and seeing the palette left just the way NC used it the day he died left a somber mark to the excitement of this event. Scratched on the palette was a short message by his daughter Caroline, “Do Not Use” with the date of October 18, 1945, the day he was killed in a train crossing accident.
But NC Wyeth inspired two more generations of great artists and you can see many reasons why. The costumes and props stored in his studio closets were the kind of things that make imaginations soar, especially in the minds of young adventurous kids. Jamie Wyeth said, “here was this physically huge studio up the hill from our house, full of costumes and cutlesses and flintlock rifles all from his props from his illustrations, so it was magical to me.” A glimpse into that room was enough to make your jaw drop open and your mind wander.
Our tour ended with the NC Wyeth home but the surprises of the day were not over. Ginny took us to the Conservancy offices where we were introduced to George “Frolic” Weymouth, the close friend and painting companion for Andrew. Frolic is also accomplished at the use of egg tempera and answered my questions on Andrew’s techniques. No, he did not use the entire egg, but only the yoke. No, he did not use a drop or two of wine to preserve the emulsion. No, he did not add oil, and no, he did not grind his pigments with a glass muller, but used them straight from the manufacturer. “His work was rough” and he didn’t seem to care so much about how fine the powdered colors were. He also did not make a paste of color but pinched a bit of pigment powder with his fingers and added it to the egg emulsion.
It was an honor to meet Frolic and I was grateful for his kind remarks as he viewed a catalogue of my recent solo exhibition.
Finally, Ginny introduced us to Mary Landa, the renowned curator of the Wyeth Collection. Mary was the sweetest and kindest person we met all day as she showed us more of what is rarely seen in the archival vaults. The honors and medals bestowed on Andrew are carefully preserved as well as the many paintings that are held for future museum display. But when Ginny asked that Mary bring out Andrew’s painting supplies, I was stunned. This petite caretaker hauled out two heavy, bulging containers and lifted them onto a table, then opened them as if she were letting magic escape into the room. One was Andrew’s field painting box, a handyman’s metal tool chest with multiple layers of metal shelves. It was filled with tubes of paint and brushes covered with messy smudges of color. Mary told us that Andrew carried this in his car everywhere he went so that he could always be ready to paint.
The second was a deep old doctor’s leather bag which opened at the top to reveal jars of dried tempera pigment. Here was his last supply of colors to be used for the masterful egg tempera pieces he is now famous for. Mary was gentle but relaxed as she lifted several of them for me to view closer.
After an enjoyable lunch in the museum cafe, my afternoon was spent immersed in the collections of the Brandywine. Andrew’s egg temperas “Roasted Chestnuts”, and “Adam” were on display, two that I had never seen in person, and between them I was engrossed for hours. His handling of textures and details is awesome when you get close, but the compositions hold you spellbound when you stand back.
Of course, I cannot help but be intently focused on his technique, the layering of life and brush strokes, the compositions within the composition, the fascinating revelation of his style...there was too much to take in and too little time. These two paintings seem to represent Wyeth at his best and they rank in the top 5 of his paintings for me. He captured the character of his subjects and yet gives the viewer a meaningful snapshot of the world in which they lived.
They also allow you to watch as if the subject is unaware of your presence. I enjoy how Andrew used this method to draw you in and help you feel a part of his experience. He was often quoted as saying he wished he could disappear and not be even present while capturing the truth around him. I can understand that feeling.
I’m sure I stood too close to the paintings and stared too long. But seeing an original is worth the trip and allows the inspiration of the artist to somehow be transmitted through the experience of enjoying their work in person. This is an unexplained phenomena that must be related to our ability to gain pleasure from being in the presence of beauty. I think God made us to enjoy beauty in all forms and a painting ranks very high on my list. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, but in our hearts as well and it feeds our very soul.
A day at the Brandywine River Museum of Art is good food for the soul.