“I am working so please do not disturb,” reads the block-lettered placard. “I do not sign autographs.”
This warning hangs on the door of an unassuming white clapboard house in Chadds Ford, Pa. It’s the house where Andrew Wyeth worked for nearly seven decades, producing many of the paintings that made him known as “America’s artist.” This summer, for the first time since his death in 2009 at 91, the studio is open for visitors.
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.
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.
When Wyeth finished a piece, our guide told us, he would burst into the kitchen and hang it above the fireplace for his family and guests to inspect. The day I visited, the painting on display was a reproduction of “Monday Morning” (1955), a lonely still life of an empty laundry basket resting with human weariness against the Wyeth studio. Back at the Brandywine River Museum, I looked at paintings such as “Monday Morning” — the original — and felt as if I’d been inside them.
Two of the most intriguing faces in the portraits on display at the museum belong to Karl and Anna Kuerner, Wyeth’s neighbors and intimate friends. The couple came to Chadds Ford from Germany, where Karl had been a machine-gunner during World War I. Wyeth is said to have been taken by the contrast between the couple’s simple home life and Karl’s wartime past.
Because of the Kuerners’ influence on the artist, their house and barn are also open for hour-long tours. I spotted no “keep out” sign, but their home felt even more private than Wyeth’s — perhaps because the property is still lived in, in a way.
Karl Kuerner Jr., now in his mid-80s, still works in his parents’ dilapidated barn. Inside, I met Dentzel the horse and Sophie the farm cat, not to mention the barn swallows. A bucket is still propped on a bar above the trough, just as Wyeth painted it in “Spring Fed” (1967), also on display at the museum. I even dipped my fingers in the water in the trough.
Just across the way from the Kuerner farm rises an unremarkable hill — unremarkable, that is, except for the fact that it appears over and over in Wyeth’s paintings. The hill often symbolizes his burly father, the great illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who died with a grandchild in 1945 when his car stalled on the nearby railroad track and was hit by a train. (N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio are also open for tours.)
As I stood on the Kuerners’ porch and looked at the hill, it suddenly struck me that N.C. Wyeth’s death was just another private tragedy, of the sort that occur every day all over the world but go unnoticed and unremembered when they befall ordinary people instead of famous artists.
Until his own death, Andrew Wyeth whiled away the hours driving through Chadds Ford with his sketch pad, on the lookout for the image that would inspire his next piece. Heading out of town, I wondered what he would have made of the scenery along the highway. Before leaving the Brandywine River Museum, I’d taken a long look at “Walking Stick” (2002). In that painting, an ancient tree rises high above a stretch of road, empty but for two orange construction cones. The tree has grown around a telephone pole so that one branch appears to be grasping it, like a walking stick.
I don’t think I was the only visitor who left Wyeth’s studio looking at the world a bit differently. At the end of the tour, one woman stopped in front of our bus driver, a ruddy-faced gentleman not quite as hardened as but apparently no less tested by life than any of Wyeth’s models. “You have the sweetest face,” she said. “You’re better than any Wyeth.”
I think Andrew Wyeth would have liked that.