Pale sunlight gleams on old brass and pewter. Through the farmhouse windows, beyond the leafless trees, the withered field grasses are a wintry Wyeth brown. Even the suspense, the stillness in the room, the sense of time suspended, seems peculiarly familiar. One has seen this scene in paintings a hundred times before.
Any minute now the old door will swing open, and Carolyn -- the unknown Wyeth -- will appear before the press to accept, at last, her share of Wyeth fame.
That her paintings aren't superb does not seem to matter: she is N.C. Wyeth's daughter, Andrew Wyeth's older siter, and Jamie Wyeth's aunt. She is -- at least she was, until at 69 she decided to go public -- the most reclusive member of our first family of art.
She still lives in her father's house, and has not changed the furniture. She almost never travels. Though she began to study art at the age of 12 (with her father as her teacher), "Carolyn Wyeth, Artist," which goes on view Friday at the nearby Brandywine River Museum, is her first large exhibition. The pictures on display there are partially familiar. She paints the weathered wooden shacks, the farmhouses and fields, that all the Wyeths paint.
She crosses the room slowly, as if in pain. Her destination is the tattered wing chair in the corner. Reporters and photographers make way as she passes. She is wearing a mauve housedress and old brown tie-up shoes. Though still heavy, she seems to have lost weight. One worries for her health until one hears her booming laugh.
The cameras are clicking. "I hate publicity," she says.
That being the case, why is it, she is asked, that after all these years she has decided to go public?
"I haven't changed my mind," she says. The photographers are kneeling before her as she speaks. "I am a recluse. That's no myth. That's the truth."
She says she is showing at the Brandywine Museum "because I was invited." Is she doing it for money? The question is received as an irritation. She waves her cigarette about as if brushing off a fly. Then is she doing it for fame? "I hate fame," she says. "I hate money too."
When recluses call news conferences one ought to be suspicious, yet when she says she hates all fame and publicity, her listeners do not doubt her. Her agent, Tennessee's Frank Fowler, sells photo-lithos of her work for$150 each. Nowadays she gets $10,000 for a painting, yet when she says she cares not at all for money, one believes her then, too.
Like the other Wyeths, she presents a sort of innocence, even when enmeshed in worldly situations.
Perhaps because America has no titled aristocracy, certain glowing families -- the Kennedys in politics, the Fondas in the movies, the Wyeths in the art world -- have been drafted by the public to serve as pop replacements. Perhaps because America does not have a lengthy past, objects that evoke the quiet life of yesteryear, the somber rural verties, sell like hotcakes. All the Wyeths understand that. Though Andrew showed his works at the Nixon White House and Jamie pals around with non-rural Andy Warhol, the Wyeths, when they paint, paint the things they know best.
Those things are the weathered barns, the fence posts and fields of the farms around Chadds Ford, and the lighthouses of Maine. They prefer to show us -- and Carolyn is no exception -- things we might have seen a century ago.
When the Wyeths paint the views from their front porches, they exclude their cars. When they paint interiors, they render antiques carefully, but they do not show the telephones.
"I don't like change," says Carolyn Wyeth. "I want things to stay the way they always are."
Her questioners ask her about her Chadds Ford childhood and the 19 years she spent studying with her father. ,the memories she summons seem both to soothe -- and bite.
She says, "I've always been a rebel. The Wyeths are always built up as a wonderful, sweetly loving, Santa Claus sort of family. Let me tell you the real thing. It wasn't all that easy. If I didn't have a bad heart, I'd go out and get drunk as hell."
"The family -- not Andy -- is still embarrassed by me," she notes in her catalogue interview. "I just wish I could get drunk and shock the hell out of them. Every time I see them I have to break ground all over again. Why the hell don't they accept me the way I am?"
She is asked about her marriage, long ago dissolved. She declines to discuss it, though she does say that her father objected to the painter she chose to wed.
"I was on the lazy side. My father didn't like that. I was sloppy, too. I was always a rebel. I still am. I do what I damn want." Now her voice is heated. "Even when my father told me what to do, I did what I wanted. That's why we didn't get along."
Then she changes tack. "My father was a great artist. A magnificent teacher. He didn't mind me fox hunting Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays. I should have been painting, yet I did what I damn wanted. I used to ride to hounds at least three times a week."
She is asked to mention other artists she admires. "I admire nobody in America today. Except my brother, Andrew Wyeth. Not because he's my brother. He's a great artist. That's not sentimentality; that's it.
Abstract painting does not please her. "Abstractions? I can't stand them." Nor does she like to teach young students. "I used to teach the hippies. I don't do that anymore. I teach middle-aged people instead." She does not like exhibitions. "I just don't go. That's it."
She is asked about a portrait hanging on the wall beside her. "That's John Bound Wyeth, 1836," she says. "He was my great-great-great-great-uncle. His sister did the drawing. He fell in battle two years later -- at the Alamo."
She is speaking now of history. She says her mother "was related to (Joseph) Turner. And I'm related to Benjamin West, too -- on my father's side." Then she recalls Scott Fitzgerald and the parties he would throw when he lived in nearby Wilmington. "those parties hurt my father. They also hurt his art. He fell for all that posh stuff. Partying all drinking until 3 o'clock. It hit the whole family. It raised hell with all of us."
She is sick and tired of imitation Wyeths. "You see trillions of them everywhere," she says with disgust.
Though she shares her brother's subjects, there is little imitation in the pictures that she paints.
She summarizes broadly. Her works, in oil, not in tempera, are free of picky detail. Something of her bluntness shows up in her pictures.They are pleasing, inoffensive, but when Andrew calls his sister "America's most important woman artist" he is speaking out of loyalty. She does not deserve such praise.
The news conference is ending. To mark its conclusion, a wooden door is opened and Carolyn's four dogs -- Sancho, a border collie: Husky, a mixed breed; and Cyrano and Princess, her pair of standard poodles, one white and one black -- bound across the room to her tattered chair.
"People don't really interest me," Carolyn Wyeth says.