Walking in the Footsteps of Andrew Wyeth

This week in North Philly Notes, W. Barksdale Maynard, author of Artists of Wyeth Country, offers his tips on taking a trip to Chadds Ford, PA to see where Andrew Wyeth and other artists of the Brandywine Tradition lived and painted.

Even with pandemic restrictions, you can still enjoy a trip to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to see where Andrew Wyeth painted. That scenic village on the banks of Brandywine Creek lies just 23 miles from Center City, Philadelphia, and always makes for an enjoyable excursion.

Before now, no guidebook existed to the artistic history of Chadds Ford. Artists of Wyeth Country is the very first. It is filled with historic photographs, color reproductions of artwork, and two maps commissioned especially for this volume. At last you can delve deeply into the art and history of this remarkable American place.  

Why was there no previous guidebook? Partly because Andrew Wyeth was so extremely secretive. Along with his wife, Betsy, he discouraged close investigation of his artistic habits and daily routine, trying to keep his painting locales ultra-private. One well-meaning journalist seeking an interview with Andrew Wyeth was forced to wait thirty-five years.

Artists of Wyeth Country followed Andrew Wyeth’s death at age 91 in 2009, at last shedding light on exactly where the artist painted and what his motivations were, both artistic and personal. The book is a rare unauthorized biography of Andrew Wyeth, full of new discoveries and candid insights.

In a sense, it is a biography of Chadds Ford as well, a place notoriously difficult for the tourist to grasp, full of twisting roads and obscure corners. Adding to the confusion is the much-altered landscape. Where Andrew Wyeth saw rolling fields, today the views are swallowed up by young forests and tangles of invasive shrubs. This complicated place really does require a guidebook.

Trips to Chadds Ford usually include a visit to the Brandywine River Museum of Art, home to the world’s largest collection of Wyeth art, but it is closed until June 2021 for refurbishment on its fiftieth anniversary. 

Instead, follow the six driving tours in Artists of Wyeth Country and explore the countryside on your own. No longer do you need to pester reluctant waitresses at Hank’s Restaurant for directions to the Barns-Brinton House or Mother Archie’s Church—it’s all in the guidebook.

Of course, many of the locations are privately owned, so you will want to observe from your car—unless you visit Brandywine Battlefield Park or other public places listed in the book, where you can get out and walk. (Some remain closed due to the pandemic; others are open by appointment, such as the quirky, engrossing Christian Sanderson Museum.)

To an extraordinary degree, Andrew Wyeth limited his painting activities to a couple of miles of territory, from his meticulously restored colonial estate, Brinton’s Mill, at the foot of Brinton’s Bridge Road (private) to Little Africa, a former black enclave not far from the Delaware line. For seventy years he painted virtually nowhere else, except for summers in Maine. Maynard places his origins in the 1930s Regionalist Movement in painting but dubs him America’s unique Micro-Regionalist.

Andrew Wyeth’s fondness for Kuerner Farm is famous, if somewhat inexplicable. As early as the 1920s, he dreamed of painting this hardscrabble farm a short walk from his childhood home, today’s N. C. Wyeth House & Studio. Betsy assembled the famous coffee-table book Wyeth at Kuerners (1976) to solve the mystery—what did her husband see in this entirely ordinary place that sustained his artistic interest not for a week or two but for much of the twentieth century?

When the Brandywine River Museum is open, it offers tours of the Kuerner farmhouse, along with tours of the N. C. Wyeth House & Studio and Andrew Wyeth Studio. For now you can drive past Kuerner Farm, its fence lines grown scruffier lately, noting the famous Kuerner Hill that rises above it to the west. Here Andrew Wyeth tobogganed as a child, later immortalizing it in such famous paintings as Winter 1946 and Snow Hill

The latter painting shows all his favorite models, including Helga Testorf, improbably dancing around a maypole. It was at Kuerner Farm that Andrew Wyeth first met Helga, a nurse to the sickly farmer Karl Kuerner. Artists of Wyeth Country contains many insights into these famous models: in real life, Helga has a radiant smile never seen in Wyeth’s somber paintings of her, and Karl seems to have been far less cruel and frightening than Wyeth claimed. 

Not only was Andrew Wyeth secretive, he enveloped himself in a protective thicket of tall tales, some of which his authorized biographer reported as fact. Among them was the claim that the key to his art and personality lay in his undying love of Halloween. Countless books repeat this fable in lieu of deeper exploration.

Far more important than Halloween was the Battle of the Brandywine. All his life, Andrew Wyeth was engrossed by the story of the largest land battle of the Revolution, fought in and around Chadds Ford on September 11th, 1777.  

British forces surged across the Brandywine at the Wyeth estate, Brinton’s Mill. And cannon thundered from the hilltop above his childhood home. Cannonballs have been unearthed at Kuerner Farm. George Washington was nearly killed by Redcoat artillery fire near today’s Chadds Ford Historical Society

Next time you visit Brandywine Battlefield Park (currently closed due to the pandemic), don’t miss Lafayette’s Headquarters, which has unfortunately been renamed the Gideon Gilpin House by recent park administrators, blurring its key historical significance. The centuries-old sycamore tree that shades it appears in Wyeth’s early masterpiece, Pennsylvania Landscape of 1942, and was recently cloned by Longwood Gardens.

To the east, note the mansion called Painter’s Folly. It was a favorite haunt of Andrew Wyeth in his later years, partly as a hideaway from his wife Betsy and his life-companion, Helga, three corners of a vexing emotional triangle. To the startled owners of Painter’s Folly, Andrew Wyeth seemed a kind of Cat in the Hat, suddenly materializing out of nowhere, playfully disrupting their lives through long painting sessions that consumed much of their time and splattered their furniture with pigment—then disappearing without warning for weeks. Happily, Painter’s Folly has recently come into public ownership. 

Chadds Ford is filled with such interesting places as these. For the first time, Artists of Wyeth Country allows you to follow in the exact footsteps of Andrew Wyeth. Take it along with you and begin exploring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: