Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga pictures” — a cache of some 240 works, including nudes, of a single model done between 1970 and 1985 — stunned the art world when they were revealed in the mid 1980s, inspiring a show at the National Gallery. And the collection created a further stir when it was bought by a Philadelphia businessman for several million and sold three years later to a Japanese buyer for tens of millions.
The Helga pictures are often described as having been a secret — even from Wyeth’s wife, Betsy.
But Nancy Hoving remembers them as more of an open secret.
Andrew Wyeth “liked to have secrets,” Hoving recalls, “so he could reveal them.”
Hoving remembers visiting the Wyeths in Chadds Ford in early 1976 with her husband, Tom Hoving, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a meal together, Tom and Betsy settled down to consult on an upcoming show at the Met, and Andy took off with Nancy in his Stutz Bearcat to show her the area. They visited his father’s studio and then his own studio where Andy said wanted to show Nancy something — something that she couldn’t tell anyone else about.
“It is our big secret,” she noted at the time. She also noted that Andy had promised Betsy, who’d been upset by his work with a previous model, that he’d never tell her about painting nudes until they were complete. Now, he told Nancy, he was painting a “German girl who is tighter and coarser” than the previous model. He was painting her in the attic room of the nearby Kuerner farm by moonlight. The seduction, Hoving thought at the time, was in the painting.
Hoving says she admired the unfinished painting and kept the secret.
That summer in Maine, when the Hovings were visiting the Wyeths, Andy gave Betsy “Barracoon” as a birthday present. It’s a nude of a black woman, and Hoving recognized it as the work she’d seen in Wyeth’s studio. The model, she knew, was the German woman Wyeth had described to her — Helga.
A decade later, when the collection became public, Helga Testorf became a household name across the country. That’s when Nancy Hoving shared her story with her husband. She knew that even if Betsy Wyeth wasn’t aware of the extent of the “Helga pictures,” she did know about at least one of the works.