A Spooky Wyeth Exhibit Debuts at the Biggs Museum

Paintings and drawings by the darlings of American art are making a dramatic return to their natural habitat.

It’s fitting that The Wyeths: Three Generations will open at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover in the wake of Halloween. The first family of American art—patriarch N.C. and his son Andrew, daughter Henriette, and grandson Jamie—laced their work in costumes, unsettling perspectives and an occasional eeriness that feels just right for the moment.

The November 2 opening also marks the homecoming for the show’s bounty of paintings and drawings, which were assembled by the Wilmington-based financial institution MBNA before it was acquired in 2006 by Bank of America. The works have since traveled to museums across the United States and abroad through the bank’s Art in Our Communities program.

Curator Laura Fravel chose to organize The Wyeths by artist, she says. “They feel so different that they need their own space to breathe and for visitors to get to know each of them individually.”Pumpkinhead Visits the Lighthouse by Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth.
Curator Laura Fravel chose to organize The Wyeths by artist, she says. “They feel so different that they need their own space to breathe and for visitors to get to know each of them individually.”Pumpkinhead Visits the Lighthouse by Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth.

With no prescribed layout for the exhibition, Biggs Museum curator Laura Fravel chose to organize The Wyeths by artist. “They feel so different that they need their own space to breathe and for visitors to get to know each of them individually,” she says.

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The first gallery is dedicated to N.C.’s work as one of America’s best-known illustrators, featuring works such as the cover illustration for Rip Van Winkle (1921) and The Astrologer Emptied the Whole of the Bowl into the Bottle (1916). “You’re greeted by that high fantasy, those bright colors,” Fravel says, “because that is how most of the nation got to know him—when they received these magazines in the mail, when they got these books.”

Andrew Wyeth’s On the Edge.
Andrew Wyeth’s On the Edge.

However, N.C.—whose teacher, artist Howard Pyle, famously encouraged him to “paint what you know”—wanted to be known as a fine artist rather than an illustrator. As this section progresses, paintings depicting his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, come into view, along with Eight Bells (Clyde, Stanley and Andy Wyeth aboard Eight Bells), a 1937 oil depicting the family’s boat in Maine with Andrew seen sketching in the cabin, and other narratively driven works.

The next gallery introduces Andrew, starting with his early illustrations of the local area and advancing to modern compositions, such as The Rebel (1977) and Crossed Swords (1992), and large egg tempera paintings, including Undermined (1998), Bird House (1997), and On the Edge (2001), which teeter on the surreal and can feel a bit unsettling.

The gallery dedicated to Henriette includes a floral still life called Nat’s Blue Shirt (1984). Fravel notes that one reason she was drawn to flowers is that their time is fleeting. “You have to capture that moment before they wilt,” she says, suggesting family psychology might also play a role. “N.C. was killed abruptly. His car was hit by a train in the Brandywine River Valley, and that became part of family lore. That focused people on that feeling of danger in the everyday.”

The Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover opens The Wyeths: Three Generations on November 2.Gnomes Bowling by N.C. Wyeth.
The Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover opens The Wyeths: Three Generations on November 2.Gnomes Bowling by N.C. Wyeth.

The show concludes with Jamie, Andrew’s son, now in his mid-70s and living in Wilmington. The works include his Maine subjects, particularly Monhegan Island, as well as surreal canvases, such as Warm Halloween (1989) and Pumpkinhead Visits the Lighthouse (2000). The last gallery features Patriot’s Barn, the only painting in the show that depicts Delaware, paired with September 11 (One City Indivisible), both from 2001.

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The Wyeths: Three Generations, which spans almost a century, opens November 2. Victoria Wyeth, Andrew’s granddaughter, will give a lecture the following day.

To learn more, visit biggsmuseum.org.

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