Jamie Wyeth wowing crowds at museum

“My Boston show has eaten into valuable time, yet I do not begrudge it, for I have received encouragement which I never expected,” wrote artist N.C. Wyeth in a 1921 letter to a friend. “The show has been especially well-attended ...”

"Southern Light," a 1994 enamel and oil painting, is one of the works in the retrospective that features Jamie Wyeth's wife, Phyllis.

"Southern Light," a 1994 enamel and oil painting, is one of the works in the retrospective featuring Jamie Wyeth's wife, Phyllis. Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum

More than 90 years later, his grandson Jamie Wyeth broke attendance records at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with a sweeping retrospective that is now running at the Brandywine River Museum. That’s just one of many parallels between the two, curator Elliot Bostwick Davis told an audience recently at the Chadds Ford museum.

Davis, the John Moors Cabot Chair at the Boston museum’s Art of the Americas, said she owed a debt to Jamie’s mother, Betsy, who enabled her to start at the beginning. In addition to holding onto treasures such as N.C.’s letters, Betsy Wyeth also collected and annotated 1,100 of Jamie’s childhood drawings.

“To start the story at the beginning was very important,” Davis said, explaining that many of Jamie Wyeth’s early works not only showed his precocity, they also reflected themes that would recur throughout the next six decades.

Davis, whose talk was titled “The Art of Jamie Wyeth: Loves and Obsessions,” explained that the artist was home-schooled after 6th grade. He received art tutelage from his aunt Carolyn Wyeth, a talented painter and colorful character who had inherited her father’s studio. N.C. Wyeth died in 1945 when his car was hit by a freight train at a railway crossing on Ring Road near his home.

Jamie Wyeth, 68, has often described his grandfather’s studio in mystical terms, a space strewn with reminders of the larger-than-life persona of a man he never knew. Giant illustrations of heroic figures that graced classic novels like Treasure Island and Robin Hood transported the young artist far beyond Chadds Ford’s boundaries.

In conversations with Wyeth, Davis said he explained his grandfather’s influence by borrowing a quote from Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Jamie Wyeth skillfully incorporated those thefts into a signature style, she said.

As Davis studied Jamie Wyeth’s work, she said she was particularly impressed by “Portrait of Shorty,” painted when Wyeth was 17. It depicts a local wayward man Wyeth found living in a shack who had to be cajoled into posing. Wyeth sat him in an ornate brocade armchair that Davis assumed sprang from the artist’s imagination.

Instead, she learned something about the interconnectedness of the area. The nearby Sanderson Museum, which boasts its own collection of Wyeth memorabilia, has a photo of the chair. Chris Sanderson, an educator and obsessive collector, lived for years in a rented house on Creek Road that now serves as the museum. Their landlord was N.C. Wyeth.

Jamie Wyeth's 1976 "Portrait of Andy Warhol" captures the iconic pop artist's  unconventional qualities.

Jamie Wyeth's 1976 "Portrait of Andy Warhol" captures the iconic pop artist's unconventional qualities. Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum

In her presentation, Davis juxtaposed Wyeth images with similar ones from painters ranging from Winslow Homer to Edgar Degas to showcase Wyeth’s distinctive take on similar objects. During the Boston show, she said many artists commented on Wyeth’s portraits of Andy Warhol, stating: “No one painted Warhol as intensely or interestingly as Jamie Wyeth.”

Davis said Wyeth’s entrée into the New York art world came about through his relationship with Lincoln Kirstein, an influential arts patron and founder of Lincoln Center. Kirstein is the subject of an intriguing 1965 Wyeth portrait that shows him from behind, his face profiled. Davis called Kirstein Wyeth’s greatest mentor “outside his family.”

To gain insight into the many paintings that feature Phyllis Wyeth, Jamie’s wife of 46 years, Davis said she interviewed them separately. Discussing “And Then into the Deep Gorge,” a painting that depicts Phyllis at the reins of a horse-driven carriage, Davis said Phyllis acknowledged never being happy with how low cut her blouse was while Jamie focused on the work’s alignment, showing how “the ponies were her legs.”

Phyllis Wyeth, a lifelong equestrian and owner of Union Rags, the horse that won the 2012 Belmont Stakes, broke her neck in a 1962 car accident. Told by doctors that she would never walk again, she fought back, alternately using crutches, horses, and now a motorized scooter to get around, Davis said.

Thomas Padon, director of the Brandywine River Museum, said the reception to the exhibit, so far, has been fantastic. He said attendance for the month of January represented a 90 percent increase from the year before. However, he said some of the difference might have resulted from the fact that last January’s weather was even worse than this year’s.

Still, even with repeated threats of snow, some of the special programs offered in conjunction with the exhibit, such as Davis’s talk, sold out. Padon said tickets for a March 6 conversation with Wyeth and Amanda C. Burdan, who curated the Brandywine show, were gone the first day they were offered.

“We’re trying to add other programs” to meet the demand, said Andrew Stewart, who heads the museum’s marketing and communications department.

Stewart said this Friday, Feb. 6, the museum will begin offering guided tours of both the N.C. Wyeth Studio and the Andrew Wyeth Studio, two of the places where Jamie Wyeth worked. The tours will leave from the museum on Fridays and Saturdays through March 14 at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., weather permitting. Limited tickets are available at the museum on the day of the tour and cost $10 in addition to museum admission ($5 for members).

Padon said in his two years at the museum, he’s been privileged to get to know members of the Wyeth family, gaining understanding into the reverence they inspire in the Brandywine Valley.

The exhibit, on display at the Brandywine River Museum through April 5, will then move to the San Antonio Museum of Art (April 26-July 5) followed by the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas (July 23-October 4).

The Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, located on Route 1 in Chadds Ford, is open daily (except Christmas) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (65+), and $6 for students with ID and children ages 6-12. Free for children ages 5 and under as well as conservancy members. For more information, visit http://www.brandywinemuseum.org.

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