Saturday, September 8, 2012

Visiting the Studio of Andrew Wyeth

I have lived near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, home to the Wyeth Family for most of my life. To me, Andrew Wyeth was always a local artist. I am very familiar with his work from many visits to the Brandywine River Museum. Since June 2012, the family has graciously allowed his studio to be open to the public on a limited reservation system. Sadly, no interior photos are permitted.

Andrew Wyeth painted for most of his life near his childhood home in an old nineteenth century schoolhouse that was originally purchased by his father, illustrator and painter NC Wyeth. Andrew’s older sister Henriette and her husband, painter Peter Hurd, lived there for a time when they were first married. Later the schoolhouse was remodeled by Andrew and his wife Betsy for their growing family by adding a kitchen and bedrooms. They lived there as newlyweds in 1940 and later with their two sons Nicholas and Jamie  until 1961 when the family moved to a nearby farm. Andrew reclaimed the schoolhouse as his studio and continued to paint there until his death in 2009

Andrew Wyeth was a fiercely independent painter in that he isn't associated with a particular school or movement and yet achieved notoriety outside of the NY Gallery system. He was taught by his father, NC Wyeth who had made his living from book illustrations, a form of commercial art, but had yearned for the freedom to be a fine painter. As a child, Andrew was encouraged and given the instruction to develop his talent and to paint with his own voice. His body of work is comprised of the natural landscape of the Brandywine River region in southeastern, PA as well as his summer home on the Maine coast along with a small group of local folks who appear again and again. One can see that the work is deeply personal and meaningful to him-- the viewer is left to discern the significance of the moment. 
Studio of Andrew Wyeth, Chadds Ford, PA ©Mimi Favre

The docent brought me (yes me--I was the only visitor) into the newer section of the building. She pointed out the kitchen (circa 1940's Colonial) filled with Betsy Wyeth’s cookbooks and noted a space above the large fireplace where he would hang newly finished work. The walls are filled with family photo's with a few celebrities, like silent film stars, mixed in. The original schoolroom was divided long ago by NC. On one side bookcases are filled with art books on Albrect Durer, Old Masters, Edward Hopper, Curtis photographs and catalogues of past exhibitions. The other side which was the family’s living room is set up as Jamie Wyeth's studio. It is here that he painted Draft Age. On a set of shelves is Andrew's armies of small soldiers and military figures which he began to collect as a child and continued throughout his life. German military helmets line the top of a large wooden Kas. 

Studio of Andrew Wyeth, Chadds Ford, PA ©Mimi Favre

The studio is locked. It felt a bit strange to step inside. No longer a living artist’s space, I felt nonetheless that I was entering as an uninvited guest. Afterall, he worked in this space for more than 60 years.

The images of all of the Wyeth paintings I have seen, knowing as only an outsider could of some of the controversial nude paintings and other work that was done in such secrecy, I felt like an intruder. The docent assured me that Mr. Wyeth agreed to open his studio. Sketches (facsimilles) are strewn about but I know that it is in private moments, over time, in thought, that compositions are worked out. A large freestanding mirror is positioned so that the work can be viewed in full or rotated in the reflection. This was a method to critique the lights and darks and overall compostion.
Studio of Andrew Wyeth, Chadds Ford, PA ©Mimi Favre

The studio space has huge windows that face North, paint is peeling off the walls and the ceiling has been plastered and restored to look as it did before necessary restoration and repairs. Jars of pigment line the window sill. Empty pans and egg cartons remind us that Andrew Wyeth was a master of egg tempera. Uncut gessoed mason board lines the walls. A few old military coats hang about. This once personal private workspace is now a museum. The artist has left the room.