Exhibit marks centennial of iconic artist’s birth

 “Andrew Wyeth is not only one of America’s iconic artists, he was a beloved fixture in this community,” said Thomas Padon, director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art at the opening of this first major retrospective of the artist’s career since his death in 2009. Many local residents have firsthand accounts of seeing Wyeth working alongside the road, eating in Hank’s or Jimmy John’s, so see him as a friend as well as a revered artist.

Devotees who wanted to be among the first through the door at the members’ preview party Thursday evening stood in line enduring the heat and humidity. The line, which snaked through the courtyard and out to the parking lot, was a seasonal counterpoint to the line of shivering fans who stood on a snow-cleared path waiting entry through the same door to pay their respects following  Wyeth’s death eight years ago.

Wyeth once said, “I put a lot of things into my work that are very personal to me. So how can the public feel these things? I think most people get to my work through the back door. They are attracted by the realism, and they sense the emotion and the abstraction—and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.”

Heads tilted forward and eyes peered deeply into each painting in the exhibition. Some paintings have never been or are rarely on view to the public. Some can be enjoyed a new light because of the way works are arranged by different periods in Wyeth’s career and by themes.

Victoria Wyeth, granddaughter of the artist shared, “The show is a wonderful tribute to my grandfather and his life’s work.” Bob DiFilippo of West Chester is a longtime member of the museum. He recently heard Victoria Wyeth speak at Upland Country Day School and was inspired to see this special exhibition. “I’m going to the Philippines next week to spend a year doing research, and I just had to see the retrospective before I left,” he explained. Local artist Karl J. Kuerner, who studied painting with Andrew’s sister, Carolyn, was pleased to see the section of the exhibition devoted to Wyeth’s paintings of his grandparents, Karl and Anna and of Kuerner Farm.

John (Jack) Morrison, his daughter Heather and her adult daughters formed a caravan to drive down from Media and Mountain Top, Pennsylvania. The three generations have enjoyed the museum for decades. Heather Morrison reminisced, “My daughters ‘grew up’ in the museum, participating in educational programs and visiting the galleries on weekends. One of their favorite museum memories is having lunch with Victoria Wyeth.”

Tara Cliff displays tattoo of Andrew Wyeth's signature

Many former Brandywine River Museum of Art employees came back to their old stomping grounds to visit familiar galleries and reconnect with old “friends” which include Wyeth paintings themselves. Tara Cliff, now of Baltimore, served as the museum’s assistant registrar from 2001 to 2005. She proudly displayed a tattoo of Andrew Wyeth’s signature on the inside of her right arm. She laughed, “Members of the Wyeth family all agree that Andy would have loved it!”

All this fuss would probably embarrass Andrew Wyeth, but his admirers are having their way. The New York Times has already written about the retrospective. Twenty writers, including four from New York, attended a press preview before the members’ opening Thursday evening. Wyeth is wildly popular in Japan, and a Japanese TV crew will arrive on July 7 to film a program for public television there.

Nicolas Wyeth with his wife Lee surrounded by her family

Andrew Wyeth eschewed pomp and circumstance and declined invitation after invitation to honor him. Even so, in his lifetime he received honorary degrees from numerous universities, beginning with Harvard in 1955. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 when President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The Metropolitan Museum presented a Wyeth retrospective in 1976. The Philadelphia Museum of Art presented Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic in 2006.

Dan and Marcia Evans (left) join Karl Kuerner and Shay Allen to preview the exhibit

The National Gallery of Art, which rarely presents shows of living artists, mounted a hugely popular exhibition on the infamous “Helga” paintings in 1987. The French government inducted him into the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1965, the first American artist since John Singer Sargent. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush presented Wyeth with the Congressional Gold Medal, noting that Wyeth “caught the heart of America.”

Summertime is vacation time, a time when travelers visit or revisit favorite sites. The museum expects a steady stream of Wyeth pilgrims from the United States and beyond to discover Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect before it closes on Sept. 17.

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About Lora B. Englehart

Lora has a passion for art, gardening, yoga, music and dancing. She continues to research the life of locally born abolitionist and 1998 National Women's Hall of Fame inductee Mary Ann Shadd Cary. She is a dedicated community volunteer, working with the American Association of University Women, Wilmington, DE branch (programs chair), Chadds Ford Historical Society (former board member) and Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art. Lora lives in Birmingham Township with her husband Bill and son Brad. Daughter Erika lives in Pittsburgh with husband Bob and baby Wilhelmina. She is a former French, Spanish and ESL teacher, bilingual life insurance underwriter and public relations coordinator for Delaware Art Museum and Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art.

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