Jamie Wyeth shares father’s wit and wisdom

Jamie Wyeth converses with Brandywine River Museum Curator Audrey Lewis

Artist Jamie Wyeth, with his handsome looks and charm, has always left the ladies swooning. Since the death of his famous father, Andrew Wyeth, in 2009, however, Jamie has taken on an almost avuncular persona when talking about his father’s art and growing up Wyeth. For local residents, his stories are not new, but they are so funny, no one minds hearing them again. Wyeth had the audience rolling in the aisles at a $100 a ticket event held at the Brandywine River Museum. The event was a prelude to the 100th birthday celebration of Andrew Wyeth the following day.

Wyeth shared the impact both his grandfather, N.C., and his mother, Betsy, had on Andrew Wyeth’s career. Andrew was determined not to paint like his father and to find his own way to express the art within his soul. Jamie explained that the two artists were very different. He illustrated his point by recounting a typical visit to N.C.’s studio where he saw swords, rifles and other glamorous props. “Then I’d go down the hill to my father’s studio, and he’d be there painting some dead crow!” he laughed.

Betsy Wyeth was only eighteen years old when she told her husband to stop painting like N.C. told him to and to think for himself. Betsy was also responsible for the titles of all Andrew’s paintings throughout his career. Jamie explained that she loved to read and was fascinated with words. According to Jamie “Her titles lifted the paintings to another level, and her titles were so good, she should have signed the paintings too.”

Curator Audrey Lewis effortlessly moved the conversation along throughout the evening, raising subjects she knew the 180 people in the audience would want to hear about. One such topic was Andrew Wyeth’s famous walks. “He totally knew this area, he grew up with these trees, and he spent as much time walking and thinking about his painting as he did actually painting,” said Jamie. “He learned his solitude from his father.”

Jamie Wyeth is obviously in awe of his father, whom he calls a “master draftsman.” Unlike N.C., who tried different styles such as impressionism, Andrew “stayed the course” and never wavered in his style. “He didn’t give a damn about anything except painting,” said Jamie, “and, although he admired several painters like Winslow Homer, he was influenced by no one.” His work exists on several levels—reality, storytelling and mystery.

Jamie described his father as a “wild man” in the studio. “He threw paint around and stepped on things. He did not start in one corner and work his way deliberately across the canvas like some people suspect. He would turn the canvas upside down and paint that way for a while. He believed a painting should be exciting in any direction,” Jamie explained.

One interesting tidbit Jamie shared about the private Wyeth family was how void of embellishment the family home was. “There wasn’t a single flower in the house. My mother didn’t want anything to compete with my father’s paintings,” Jamie said. “One time my friends came over, and one of them asked me, ‘When are you moving out?’” he chuckled.

Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, one of the best-known American paintings of the middle 20th century, hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The museum director at the time of purchase in 1948 went out on a limb for it, and the painting still does not receive much respect at MOMA, where it hangs in a dimly lit hallway. However, according to Jamie, “The two questions most frequently asked by MOMA visitors are ‘Where are the bathrooms?’ and ‘Where is Christina’s World?’”

Goodbye was Andy’s last painting, a Christmas present to Betsy in 2008. “It is so simple, and yet loaded with meaning” declared Jamie. In the painting, a sailboat with a single figure steers past their Maine island home. “Is it Andy leaving the island for the last time?” mused Jamie. “Is it foreshadowing?” he wondered aloud. Adding to the mystery of the painting is the fact that Andy’s signature, previously observed by his friend and conservator, Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, has somehow disappeared.

Jamie Wyeth is impressed with the Brandywine’s current exhibition, Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect and says, “It is one of the finest exhibitions of my father’s work I have ever seen.” Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, the first career retrospective of the artist since his death, features over 100 works, spanning the artist’s career and includes many of Wyeth’s rarely exhibited studies. The exhibition offers new insights into his creative process and approach. Jamie Wyeth pointed out that the show includes paintings that many museums typically refuse to lend.

Jamie summed up his father and his body of work by saying, “He was a hard painter to pin down.” Jamie treasured their back and forth banter on their various projects over the years. “That’s what I miss about him the most,” he declared.

 

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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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