The Wyeth Family and Their Art: An Inside Look

Courtesy of the Wyeth Study Center

A deep fascination with artists’ studios—cluttered spaces scattered with tools, bits of creative inspiration and organized chaos—leads me to tour the workspaces of two renowned painters with roots in the Brandywine Valley.

“I am working so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.”

This sign hanging on Andrew Wyeth’s studio door is a first glimpse into who he was as an artist—private, reclusive, not wanting to be watched. But stories I’d heard over the years from my stepfather Peter Sculthorpe, an established painter who’d befriended Wyeth in the early 1970s when the prolific watercolorist attended his earliest shows at Chadds Ford Gallery, revealed a warmer spirit. Wyeth the man was “wonderful, kind and even a little silly,” and enjoyed having friends over to the country home he shared with his wife, Betsy—just not his studio.

If there’s a season synonymous with Wyeth’s palette of muted grays and browns, it’s late fall. And it was during that time when he first asked Peter, 30 years his junior, to spend the day with him at his home, a beautiful structure built during the Revolutionary War and restored with a fieldstone façade, random-width oak floors and period antiques that Betsy collected.

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“Of course I fell over backwards,” my stepdad had told me, stunned by the invitation.

Wyeth’s career was “really taking off” at that time. (Amusingly, he told Peter that although he’d been painting all his life, it was his opinion that he had only scratched the surface.) He’d just completed his first three portraits of Siri, which now hung in his living room. Because the paintings were nudes and the subject was underage, they couldn’t yet be revealed to the public. A realist painter predominantly inspired by the characters and landscapes that surrounded him, Wyeth—the youngest child of famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth—was becoming one of the best-known artists of the mid-20th century.

Together the men drank bourbon, chatted about art and philosophy, and toured the property and more of Wyeth’s paintings. The elder artist had unknowingly solidified for the younger that he should pursue a career in fine art. And it was Andy’s support and artistic advice over the following years that partly reinforced it. (Peter would later send Wyeth a thank you note sharing this sentiment; Andy would write back how glad he was to hear it.)

Andrew Wyeth
A young Andrew Wyeth at work in his father N.C. Wyeth’s studio. Starting again this month, both artists’ studios are available for touring at the Brandywine Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Wyeth Study Center

While few had such a unique opportunity to intimately connect with Wyeth the painter, the rest of us can come close on a guided studio tour, which launches again this month at the Brandywine Museum of Art, along with the N.C. Wyeth Home & Studio Tour. Both are part of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and are a short distance from the museum.

To understand Andy Wyeth, one might begin with a look at his childhood home, a 1911 Colonial Revival overlooking 18 wilderness acres that also houses N.C.’s studio.

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Initially relocating to Wilmington from Massachusetts to study under Howard Pyle, N.C. and wife Carolyn later poured his earnings from illustrating Treasure Island into building their rural compound in Chadds Ford.

Beyond his career as an artist and illustrator, the tour focuses on N.C. as a father and family man.

“We look at the creative life of the five Wyeth children and their upbringing,” says Mary Cronin, director of audience engagement. “As we enter the living room, called the Big Room, we ask people to imagine a lot of activity here—maybe sister Ann [a musician] at the piano…N.C. reading a book aloud or playing classical music… Andrew sketching…Henriette and Carolyn [both artists] busy painting.” Nathaniel, a burgeoning engineer, would probably be putting together one of his many projects.

Up the hill in the studio, visitors can get a feel for the artist’s personality. High ceilings and north-facing Palladian windows draw in ample light, illuminating N.C.’s many collections—including various props, piles of books and even an 18-foot-long Penobscot birchbark canoe he’d purchased in Maine that once hung from the ceiling—as well as his collared smock, still smeared with oil paints, and an original mural of William Penn that spans the entire east wall.

Other works, displayed on easels, are reproductions. Blobs of color, long dried, cling to a large wooden palette that reads “DO NOT USE”—preserved by Carolyn after her father and nephew were struck by a train and killed in 1945.

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Although Andy spent years training under his father, his artistic style and approach were in stark contrast, evidenced during the Andrew Wyeth Studio Tour. As senior curator Amanda Burdan puts it, “In [Andy’s] studio, you a get very different sense than you do in N.C.’s.”

A repurposed schoolhouse that was once the home of the young Wyeth couple, the building became Andy’s studio after he and Betsy moved up the river to the house my stepdad visited. (Not surprisingly, Betsy created a studio for her husband at their new home, but Wyeth preferred to stay put.)

N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth. Courtesy of the Wyeth Study Center

“I’m sure growing up, he [often] saw visitors going into his father’s studio. …My imagination tells me he didn’t want people poking around his work when they came over for dinner or drinks,” Burdan says.

Andy did, however, carve out a space where his son Jamie could create: New this spring, the museum has reinstalled the area to how it looked during the Vietnam War while the younger Wyeth was painting Draft Age. The renowned leather jacket worn by his subject is also on display, along with 20 some sketches. (Previously, the area showcased his portraits of John F. Kennedy.)

Today visitors to Andy’s studio can poke around a gallery of personal photos and a narrow library filled with reference books, films and figurines—“insight into who and what inspired him,” Cronin points out—as well as the modest room where he painted many important works.

Jars of pigment, used to mix egg tempera (his second medium, after watercolor) clutter a windowsill and other surfaces. A mahogany full-length mirror reflects the “haunting gaze of a watchdog” that’s propped on a floor easel splattered with paint. And similar to his father’s studio: An artist’s apron, smudged with his medium, is a unique and wonderful detail that helps preserve a bygone era.

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