Friends, family remember Betsy Wyeth

From art to business and family, Betsy James Wyeth had an impact. And while she was not an artist herself, she did, in the words of one local artist, help build an empire. Wyeth, the wife of Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, died Tuesday, April 21.

She was "very business-like, but also very caring," said artist Karl Kuerner. "She helped build Andy's empire."

Betsy James Wyeth, 1968, photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Wyeth Family Archives.

Kuerner studied under Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew's sister, and got to know the family through her. He and Andrew became friends and colleagues. But the relationship between the two families began earlier when Andrew started painting the Kuerner farm, and Karl's grandparents were still living. He said a fondness developed between Betsy Wyeth and his grandmother.

And when Kuerner's late wife Louise was diagnosed with cancer, he said, Andrew and Betsy came to the Kuerner home with flowers and gave Louise the names of doctors who she thought might help.

"It was very touching. She was very concerned and spent time doing knitting projects with Louise," Kuerner said.

Betsy Wyeth was known for tending to the business side of Andrew's career, titling his paintings, and cataloging his work, but she also stepped into Kuerner's career on one occasion. The Brandywine River Museum of Art wanted to do a small exhibit featuring Kuerner's work with that of Andrew.

"She spent time with us picking out the ones she thought most appropriate," Kuerner said. "You heard that Betsy was very business-like, yet, I think she showed my family a fondness that others wouldn't necessarily see."

Another fond memory he has is the time Andy Wyeth bought Kuerner's painting "March of the Peepers" for Betsy as a Mother's Day present.

"She was so thrilled to get that for Mother's Day that she called me and said, 'My God, that's such a wonderful, wonderful gift.' But she really spent her time creating Andy's career," Kuerner said. "What a wonderful partnership they had. She created an empire, and it was all out of love for what Andy did."

There was a strong, maybe a stern side, too. "Betsy expected the best out of everybody and, if you didn't give it, she would have a problem with it," said Kuerner.

Betsy Wyeth's strength as a businessperson became significant for Barbara Moore, of Barbara Moore Fine Art, and the director of the former Chadds Ford Gallery. While the two women did not spend a lot of time in direct contact, Moore said Wyeth was instrumental in helping her transition from being a single mother to a businesswoman.

"She was a woman of strength, and she helped me find my strength," Moore said. She was my guide. Due to life's circumstances, she taught me how to live and to work. I saw how she conducted herself in the business of art, and that helped me. She gave me the wherewithal to learn how to handle a business. We had a very good business to business relationship, but we were friendly enough that she gave me her vegetable soup recipe."

But in the end, it was about family.

"She was just fabulous," said Victoria Wyeth as she shared memories of her grandmother.

"Holidays are really big in my family, and my grandmother was so wonderful at doing these fabulous meals, and it created a fantastic sense of family. We'd have this big Easter egg hunt at the mill in Chadds Ford and she would make creamed eggs, every Sunday," Victoria Wyeth said in a telephone interview.

Victoria Wyeth learned to wear makeup at six years old because her grandmother taught her. Betsy also taught her how to put up her hair in a French twist, and how to smoke.

"When I was a young girl, I really wanted to smoke cigarettes. She smoked cigarettes, and she taught me and told me that if anyone ever insulted our family, I should smile at them and blow smoke in their face," Victoria said.

But aside from cooking, doing hair, and wearing makeup, Betsy Wyeth impressed her granddaughter in how she helped Andy Wyeth with the business side of art.

"She titled everything; she framed everything. It was just incredible. She would sit there with the Oxford English Dictionary, literally reading it to come up with titles. I always knew she played a big role in my grandfather's career but, to sit there and watch her as they would sit together and figure out the title and figure what worked in the painting, what didn't work that was just incredible to watch," she said.

And when her grandmother developed dementia, Victoria wanted to do for her as Betsy had done for others.

"Because she was so good with the cooking and everything else, when she developed dementia about the time my grandfather got sick, I thought it was important to start cooking for her. So, I did these family dinners every Sunday for like seven years. I was my way of returning the favor."

Victoria Wyeth said her grandmother had a very peaceful death, surrounded by family and with Victoria holding Betsy's hand and stroking her hair and face.

"I feel very fortunate that I was with my grandfather when he passed away, and I was with my grandmother when she passed away. … She's with my grandfather now, and that brings me great comfort. She was wonderful in the business sense, but she was also a loving wife, a wonderful mother and a wonderful grandmother. One of my favorite memories, from about a week ago, I was sitting there holding her hand and she kissed my hand. That was just the best, a wonderful final memory."

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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2 Responses to “Friends, family remember Betsy Wyeth”

  1. Molson says:

    Beautifully written Rich.

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