We completely disregard the sign on the door of Andy Wyeth’s studio that states, “I am working so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.” We push open the wooden door of the 1875 stucco school-house anyway and go right on in as if he were expecting us. We enter the small country kitchen with the saucepans hanging on the walls and the day bed with the handmade quilt inviting a mid-day nap, after an intense morning of painting. On the walls are a series of warm and tender photographs of Andy and his model Seri, laughing and enjoying one another’s company. Over the fireplace hangs Andy’s latest painting so when his friends enter his studio, they could view it and critique it.
It feels as though Andy will come around the corner but only his memories remain and this wonderful studio which is now open for tours through the Brandywine River Museum.
The house was purchased by Andrew’s famous artist/illustrator father, N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth in 1925. N.C., who illustrated beloved classics such as Treasure Island, and Robinson Crusoe. ” N.C. taught Andrew his craft beginning in his teen years. After marrying Betsy, Andrew and Betsy moved in and raised two sons here, Jamie and Nicholas, occupying the house from 1940 to 1961. Andrew Wyeth painted in this quaint little house from 1940 to 2008, just a year before his death at 91 years old. Jamie’s son also painted here, including his famous portrait of President Bobby Kennedy. The studio was given to the Brandywine River Museum as a gift from Andrew’s wife, Betsy in 2010.
On tour, you get the feeling that nearly everything is hanging and arranged just as Andrew left it. His favorite things are here- his fencing foils lean against a window; cabinets filled with over one thousand miniature German military figures that he collected and played with as a boy; Bontichelli posters, Earl Flinn photos, Howard Pyle prints hang on the walls, all glimpses into Andrew Wyeth’s life and loves. There are phone numbers scribbled on the wall above the telephone, in Andrew’s script, for he did not believe in address books.
A dynamic video by Jamie can be viewed, providing insight on what his father was really like and how he executed the painting process.
“His large temperas were made in this studio with drawings scattered all over the floor. The process was really mental, in his head and in this room. He was in fact, a wild painter.”
Since Jamie painted here for a period along with his father, Jamie’s preliminary drawings of Bobby Kennedy are tacked all over a private little alcove that he made to create his own space.
“My father listened to very loud music while he painted, all kinds of music, and I found this disturbing.” In his collection is Bach, Beethoven, cowboy music, Broadway hits, pipes and drums.
A reel to reel film projector sits in the room. Jamie recalls having to rewind his father’s beloved 1925 silent film, “The Big Parade” over 200 times and he knew it by heart.
Andrew’s painting studio is perhaps the most fascinating room, with his glass jars of brilliant powdered pigments lining the window sill. Through the panes, we can see huge shade trees sheltering the house and green sloping grounds. Our docent tells us that pathways lead from Andrew’s home and studio over to N.C.’s across the hill. One can imagine the artists taking breaks to call on one another and critique work.
The dry pigments on the windowsill were mixed with egg yolks and distilled water to create an egg tempera medium that Andrew was so famous for. This technique was taught to him by illustrator Peter Hurd, his brother-in-law. Egg tempera enabled Andrew to get incredibly fine brush stroke detail. His palette cups sit here as well as his carton of eggs, a plastic gallon jug of water, glass jars full of brushes. Jamie tells us in the video that his father preferred the extra-large white eggs from Wawa!
In the studio are eight-foot partitions on rollers which Andrew could move around and block out light. Large mirrors enabled him to view his work in reverse as this perspective made his mistakes just pop out. The high ceiling overhead is rough and unfinished, just like the walls, just the way Andrew liked it, like an unfinished quilt.
Our docent tells us that the quick drawings scattered all over the floor was how Andrew transformed his thoughts. He got his ideas down fast and then committed them to memory. These ideas for paintings, however, began on his long walks as he came across subject matter for his pieces.
We dig deep into Andrew Wyeth’s painting life as we walk these rooms, linger in his most private intimate space. We get to know him and half expect him to come around the corner, paintbrush in hand, to greet us, his memory is so strong. Here he struggled and worked and created the works that America has grown to love. It is a great privilege to spend some time in his sacred space.
The studio tours are conducted from April 1st through Thanksgiving. You can also tour N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio, as well as the Kuerner Farm, (nearby farm that inspired Andrew). 610-388-2700 http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/awstudio.html
An edited version of this will appear in Pennsylvania Magazine down the pike. http://www.pa-mag.com