Traveling Pennsylvania’s Route 100, winding alongside the Brandywine River and passing by many stunning estate properties and colonial-style farmhouses, it is easy to miss the old converted schoolhouse just south of Chadds Ford. Hundreds drive past it each day, but few realize that from this unassuming building came some of the greatest art ever created in America. For over 70 years, it served as Andrew Wyeth’s studio.

One Sunday afternoon in May of 1999, a mutual friend, John Silvasi, brought me to the studio on a whim, to see if Andy (as friends called him) was around. Above the studio door, a sign was posted to ward off unwanted visitors–I do not sign autographs. We had no appointment–Wyeth didn’t schedule his days by the clock or calendar. There was no guarantee he’d be in, John said, and even if he was, he might not answer, but it was worth a shot. I stood in front of the intimidating sign and hoped I did not look like an autograph hunter.

Our knock was answered by the voice of Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s longtime model, now nurse and assistant. She called us into the kitchen area, where she sat on the floor, surrounded by a dozen glass jars filled with colored powders. Her hair was dyed blonde and she wore a white tank top and stretch pants. My friend asked about the jars. "They’re herbs," she explained in her thick German accent. "Healing herbs. How do you think I keep Andy alive so long?"

"Will Andy be over today?" John asked.

"Yes, but I don’t know when," Helga answered.

The kitchen was in disarray. Heaps of mail and newspapers covered the counters. Art books–hefty volumes on Dürer, Rembrandt, Brueghel, and others–were stacked on a bookshelf and on the floor. The air was heavy and sweet–no air conditioning–and flies buzzed around the sink. The scene brought to mind a comment of Wyeth’s I had read: "I like to paint in places that are not too nice. That’s why I like painting Helga. She’s not in love with the neatness of life or things."

On the walls were photos of various members of the Wyeth clan and a pencil sketch of Andrew’s wife, Betsy. A large detail from Botticelli’s "Primavera" hung above the chairs Helga cleared off for us. A poster for an exhibit of Russian Orthodox icons covered a closet door. Wyeth’s connection to Botticelli, the master of egg tempera, was obvious. But I wondered what interest he had in Orthodox icons–except that they too are painted in egg tempera, which, next to watercolor, is Wyeth’s primary medium.

While we waited for Andy, Helga brewed some herbal tea and brought out a box of tea biscuits. The ornate box showed an engraving of Albrecht Dürer’s house. Helga had ordered the box from Germany as a gift for Andy, she said, because he visited Dürer’s home on his only trip to Europe. Despite Wyeth’s interest in great art, he very rarely travels or visits museums. "After you travel you’re never the same," he once explained. "You get more erudite, you get more knowledge. I might lose something very important to my work–maybe innocence."   


Creative innocence was instilled in Andrew at an early age by his father (and only art instructor), N. C. Wyeth. One of the greatest American illustrators, N. C.’s exuberant paintings of such classic tales as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, and The Last of the Mohicans are etched in the minds of generations of readers. A bold, imposing figure possessed of a very sensitive spirit, N. C. stoked the imaginations of his children by regaling them with dramatic stories, introducing them to the best classical music, and taking them on excursions through the countryside.

At Christmas, N. C. would transform himself into "Old Kriss," the family version of Santa Claus. He mounted the roof, ringing bells, barking out orders to reindeer, and stamping his feet to wake the children. Finally, Old Kriss actually squeezed down through the chimney and into the "big room" to deliver the presents. Young Andrew was so shaken with delight and terror at this spectacle that on one occasion he wet his pants.

Above all, N. C. sought to immerse his children in beauty, wonder, and romance–the very qualities embodied in his illustrations. His efforts were not in vain. Andrew, Henriette, and Carolyn became painters; Ann, an accomplished musical composer (her "Christmas Fantasy" was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra when she was only 18); and Nathaniel became an engineer with DuPont, developing among other things the technology for creating plastic soda pop bottles.

Andrew’s boyhood home is just up the hill from his studio. And just beyond the old house is the N. C. Wyeth studio, built in 1912 with the proceeds from N. C.’s Treasure Island illustrations. In his studio, N. C. kept a chest full of costumes for his models. Raiding the chest, the Wyeth children and their friends masqueraded as cowboys, Indians, soldiers, pirates, and princesses. Andrew loved to dress up as Robin Hood and lead his band of merry men through the surrounding forest. He was of frail health as a child, thus kept out of public school and informally tutored at home. "When I was a kid and the rest were going to school," he once recounted, "I was getting educated wandering through cornfields and the woods." 


The afternoons spent roaming the countryside, the magical and terrifying Christmases, the masquerading and role-playing with friends–they all became part of the essence of Wyeth’s art. Most of the subjects for his hundreds of paintings were taken from a radius of less than a square mile around his home. Wyeth painted what he knew. A hill for him was not just a hill, but a  place freighted with countless memories and emotions. "I don’t love the Brandywine Valley because it’s scenic, or because it’s beautiful," he once said. "I love it the way you love your mother. I love it because I was born here."

One cannot paint as Wyeth did without an intimate knowledge of a small plot of land and its inhabitants. An outsider is distracted by the mere surface or "big picture"–he might pull over to the side of the road to enjoy a scenic view, but he cannot truly know what he is looking at. The tourist does not know the local names of hills or streams, or the history that gives them significance.

Consider Kuerner’s Hill, which Wyeth sketched and painted hundreds of times. The first time I drove down Ring Road in Chadds Ford, I was shocked to suddenly find myself in the middle of an Andrew Wyeth painting. There was Kuerner’s Hill–I recognized its particular slope and crown of pine trees. But it was no more spectacular than any other hill. Were it not for Wyeth’s paintings, I certainly would not have given it a second look. What does Wyeth see in that ordinary hill? He walked over and around it countless times since his days of playing Robin Hood. But it was on October 19, 1945 that Kuerner’s Hill became a focal point of Wyeth’s life and art. On that day, N. C. and his grandson Newell were out for an afternoon drive, when they came to the railroad crossing at the foot of Kuerner’s Hill. N. C.’s car stalled (or perhaps he was distracted, or suffered a heart attack–no one knows for sure). The car was struck by an oncoming train–N. C. and little Newell were killed instantly.

"When he died," Wyeth once said, "I was just a clever watercolorist–lots of swish and swash. . . . Now I had this terrific urge to prove that what he started in me was not in vain–to really do something serious and not play around with it, doing caricatures of nature. . . . With his death, the landscape took on a meaning–the quality of him."

After N. C.’s death, Chadds Ford meant more than ever to Andrew, and he never left it. (Though, following a tradition begun by N. C., he spent most summers painting near Port Clyde, Maine.) Staying close to his native home, Wyeth grew increasingly aware of the passage of time and the rhythms of life, death, and rebirth. "I’m very conscious of the ephemeral nature of the world. There are cycles. Things pass. They do not hold still. My father’s death did that to me."  

Sam Torode Book Arts
nashville, tennessee

That May afternoon as we waited in the kitchen, a weathered blue pick-up truck finally ambled up the drive. Andy hopped out and made his way into the studio. We shook hands–he was happy to see his old friend and apparently pleased to meet this young admirer. At 82 years, Wyeth was somewhat slowed by age, his face ruddy and weathered, capped by silver hair. But his clear, high voice and impish smile were welcoming, and when he spoke his blue eyes flashed with childlike restlessness. He wore a tweed jacket over his white turtleneck shirt, and black thermal pants.

Wyeth’s studio housed a number of curious artifacts, and as he showed me around the large room (once the schoolroom) Andy relished pointing out each item and telling its story. Several military uniforms were displayed in glass cases–one from the Franco-Prussian War, another belonged to a Union general in the American Civil War. The uniforms reminded me of the costumes in N. C.’s studio, and Andrew’s childhood days of dressing up.

Andy pointed to a soldier’s helmet resting atop a cabinet: "That was Karl Kuerner’s helmet in the First World War. He painted a horseshoe on it for luck. And on the back he painted an eye–so he could see behind his head." Near the end of his life, Karl, stricken with cancer, posed for Wyeth in that very helmet. In The German (1975)–Kuerner immigrated to the U.S. in 1923–Karl stares out with icy eyes into a cold and brutal winter landscape. It is one of Wyeth’s most haunting portraits.

Wyeth was always fascinated by military history. As a child, his collection of toy soldiers fired his imagination, inspiring many of his first drawings. His boyhood sketches of knights and soldiers can be seen at the Christian Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford.

Wyeth’s soldiers still marched in procession along the bookshelves and windowsills in the main room of the studio. "These are the same toy soldiers I played with as a boy," he proudly told me as we stood admiring them. They were gifts from his father. 

Sam Torode Book Arts
nashville, tennessee

Andy told me how, in the 1950s, he traveled to New York for the opening of an exhibit that included his own work and that of the great realist Edward Hopper, alongside a myriad of large abstract paintings that had no discernible subject at all. It was there, said Wyeth, that he met Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the fathers of Abstract Expressionism, who dominated the art scene of the time. The reaction he had to the trendy modernists is illuminating. "They were the conservatives," Wyeth said of Pollock and de Kooning. "They were the establishment. We were the radicals."

I asked Wyeth specifically what he thought of Pollock, who created his vibrant "action paintings" by laying canvases on the floor and splattering them with paint straight out of the can. He spoke fondly of the man. "He was a wonderful, exuberant personality. Flamboyant–just like his paintings." Wyeth, I learned, was not a partisan of any "ism"–he did not dismiss any artist out of hand because of his style.

The same cannot be said of Wyeth’s critics. By the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism and the New York style were entrenched dogma. Pop Art and Minimalism soon followed. Wyeth, who did not fit in, became a lightning rod for criticism. Wyeth is still ignored by most historians of twentieth-century art, except for those, like Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, who mention Wyeth only to defame his work. (Hughes  wrote in his influential survey of modern art, The Shock of the New, that Wyeth’s "ridiculously over-promoted" nudes "look like pious deodorant ads.")

Rather than engaging his art on its own terms, many critics simply dismiss Wyeth. "He’s just an illustrator," sneered Hilton Kramer of The New Criterion. "Wyeth’s paintings have nothing to do with serious artistic expression." In Kramer’s vocabulary, "artists" are an anointed few, set apart from the rest of humanity. Wyeth had no use for such pretension. He didn’t see art as sacred–in fact, he was known to burn his own preliminary sketches by the barrelful, when they might have sold for thousands of dollars apiece. And in the foreword to a book by his friend Thomas Hoving, Wyeth asserted his confidence in the judgements of the ordinary people who turned out in record numbers to see his shows: "The so-called common man instinctively knows what’s worthy in art and what to like and just needs a little coaxing to express it and be confident with it." 


Viewing Wyeth’s work in the Brandywine River Museum, I have sometimes heard museumgoers comment on Wyeth’s realism. "Look at the detail on that–it looks just like a photograph!" But the subtle allure of Wyeth’s realism is that he went far beyond what could be done with a camera. He transcended the mere surface to capture the spirit of his subject, often by distortion, abstraction, simplifying visual forms, and adding a touch of the surreal. 

A good example is Wyeth’s large tempera painting The Virgin (1969). A powerful piece, it depicts a young, nude woman standing unselfconsciously in a dark barn, her head turned toward a crack in the door, through which a shaft of golden light falls across her face and shoulder and catches her hair. Within this painting Wyeth subtly communicates an entire world of experiences–the smells of the barn, the passage of time, the texture of hair and skin, the character of a rugged farm girl. The Virgin is suffused with a quiet dignity, revealing not just the body but something of the soul. 

"Really, I think one’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes," Wyeth once said. "I don’t paint these hills around Chadds Ford because they’re better than the hills somewhere else. It’s that I was born here, lived here–things have a meaning for me."

In a modern America of rootlessness and continual transition, Wyeth’s life and art remained grounded in the land and people nearest to him. He lived close to the sources of his inspiration; that is why he kept drawing and painting nearly every day, even in his final years.

In Andrew Wyeth’s artistic vision, the particular was made universal. "You don’t have to paint tanks and guns to capture war," he once said. "You should be able to paint it in a dead leaf falling from a tree in autumn." By painting a leaf, a branch, or a hill, Wyeth evoked longing and sadness. In painting his neighbors, he revealed our common human nature.

Because of Wyeth’s art, the distinct places and people of a little village called Chadds Ford resonate with observers across the world. And that is why his work will endure. 


Article and photographs copyright © Sam Torode

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IN MEMORIAM

A Visit with Andrew Wyeth

(1917—2009)

by Sam Torode


S.T. and A.W. in front of Andy's collection

of toy soldiers

Andrew Wyeth's
schoolhouse studio

The Kuerner farm

Kuerner's Hill

Millstones on the
Wyeth property