Chronicler of a bygone America and the Norman Rockwell of rural solitude, Wyeth occupies a strange place in the art world. Once, in response to a survey about the most under- and overrated artists of the 20th century, as the New York Times noted in his obituary, one historian nominated Wyeth for both categories. I’ve always been drawn to his bleak landscapes and the hardscrabble faces in his portraits, and a weekend trip to Chadds Ford only made me appreciate them more.
Details, Chadds Ford, Pa.
Planning the trip, I faced a quandary: Where to begin? One stop on the Wyeth pilgrimage is his studio, a 19th-century schoolhouse where the artist lived from 1940 until 1961 and where he continued to work until shortly before his death. Another stop is the Brandywine River Museum, where tour groups gather for the short bus ride to the studio. In addition to housing a permanent collection of Wyeth’s works, the museum has mounted a temporary themed exhibit of paintings created in the studio or inspired by the countryside that surrounds it. Many of the works are on display for the first time and will be shown through Oct. 28.
I decided to do the hour-long studio tour first, hoping that it would help me feel a closer connection to the paintings in the museum. Walking through the studio, I felt almost like an intruder. Maybe the sensation had something to do with the sign on the door, or with all the oddities inside — the little things that make a house someone’s home.
For instance, Wyeth apparently had a habit of writing phone numbers on the walls. Whenever he was on the outs with his wife, Betsy, she would paint over his scribblings, so that he’d have to rebuild his strange Rolodex from scratch. The couple must have been on good terms when Andrew died, because I spied more than a few numbers on various walls.
Shelves throughout the house hold the helmets and soldier figurines that Wyeth the military buff collected over his lifetime. In an open hallway closet stands a massive roll of white art paper that he never had time to use. And on the table in his studio — the final room on the tour — sits a carton of eggs from Wawa, a key ingredient of his egg temperas. I wondered how many times Wyeth had shopped at the Wawa I’d passed at least once on the way to my hard-to-find bed-and-breakfast.
Even in the stillness of the uninhabited home, the guide did a fine job of re-creating the noise and thrashings of Wyeth’s creative genius. To his family’s dismay, he once carried in a buzzing beehive to use as a model. The music of Bach blared throughout the house while he worked. Paint would splatter onto the cracked ceiling and the brown walls.