This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.
CHADDS FORD, Pa. — In Andrew Wyeth’s prolific career, which lasted seven decades, he worked largely within a small radius of his rural family homes here and in Cushing, Maine. Making acutely observed sketches of the landscapes and people in these isolated communities, he later translated them into paintings in the studio, creating indelible images of American life.
Now, some 7,000 works by Wyeth, only 15 percent of which have been previously exhibited, will be made accessible for exhibition, scholarship and loans through an unusual partnership between the Wyeth Foundation for American Art — set up by the artist and his wife and business manager, Betsy, in 2002 — and their two local museums, the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine; each institution houses half of the foundation’s collection.
“My mother was the mastermind of all this,” said Jamie Wyeth, a third-generation painter in the Wyeth family. His grandfather, NC Wyeth, who bought land in Chadds Ford and Maine with earnings from his successful career as an illustrator, taught three of his five children to paint.
At 20, the precocious Andrew was received in the art world as the new Winslow Homer after a solo show of watercolors at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in New York. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art bought “Christina’s World,” his painting of a disabled young woman lying in a field looking yearningly toward a distant farmhouse, today one of the most widely recognized works of American art.
After he married Betsy James in 1940, she became pivotal in her career, amassing and overseeing the enormous collection of his work that is now owned by the Wyeth Foundation.
Rather than give the collection to a single institution, where it might languish in the basement, or disperse the works among multiple public and private collections as many artist foundations do, “my mother’s thought was to keep the work intact,” Mr. Wyeth said.
Several years before Andrew Wyeth’s death in 2009, Betsy Wyeth set up a plan for their future estate, in which the foundation would retain ownership of the art but enlist the expertise of the Brandywine to manage all aspects of the collection residing in perpetuity under its roof and at the Farnsworth.
Since the agreement took effect with the 2020 death of Betsy Wyeth, it has unleashed “an entire suite of new possibilities, because we have thousands of works on paper, studies, things that have never been seen,” said Virginia Logan, executive director of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, the museum’s parent organization.
These include highly abstract and intimate watercolors of nature that Andrew Wyeth did not consider polished enough to hang. He was also reluctant to show his early paintings in oil, which he considered student work. He preferred tempera, a medium he loved because it dried quickly and enabled him to achieve a feeling of decay.
“During Andrew’s and Betsy’s lifetimes, they had a somewhat curatorial view of how they liked to share what’s seen,” Ms. Logan said. “This is a new opportunity, without those restrictions, to really look at things with a fresh eye and expand the reach beyond the Brandywine and the Farnsworth.”
That job will fall largely to a new curator, devoted to this collection, who will be employed at the Brandywine and will oversee exhibitions in dedicated gallery spaces there and at the Farnsworth.
The position will also include collaborating on loan exhibitions with other institutions and guiding the catalogue raisonné of Wyeth’s entire output, numbering more than 10,000 finished and unfinished works. The Wyeth Foundation will offset the curator’s salary, the art’s conservation and all additional costs related to the collection with an annual grant to the Brandywine estimated at $750,000 to $1 million or more.
This will be in addition to the foundation’s work to promote the study of American art. In 2021, it gave more than $1.5 million in grants, underwriting fellowships at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and contributing to exhibitions, including $50,000 for the catalog for “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents,” currently at the Metropolitan Museum.
“We’ve had a very conscious strategy to people the field,” said J. Robinson West, president of the Wyeth Foundation. “The view is that Andy is a quintessentially American painter and that the more interest there will be in American painting, the more interest there will be in Andy’s work.”
Although Andrew Wyeth has sometimes been dismissed as a sentimental realist painter, “a big part of making him relevant is getting people to see the actual work,” said Thomas Padon, director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art. “Yes, he has this hyper-realist degree of detail, but there’s nothing sentimental. These are tough works — the bleak winter landscapes, old age, death. There’s just this aching loneliness.”
On view now at the Brandywine are Wyeth paintings and studies of African Americans living in Chadds Ford in the mid-20th century, an important visual record of a community once centered around a church led by Mother Lydia Archie that has died off and been pushed out by rising land prices.
The museum has worked with local historians to unearth new biographical information, provided on wall labels, about these former residents, including Adam Johnson, the caretaker of the Black cemetery and church grounds, who sued the township to stop its relocation of the graves in order to build a town hall. He was a recurring subject in Andrew Wyeth’s work for almost 40 years.
“I was interested in trying to restore these people’s identities, not just as anecdotes in Wyeth’s life,” Mr. Padon said.
He is also looking to highlight cross-generational relationships, noting that contemporary artists, including James Welling and James Prosek, have been inspired by Wyeth.
At the Farnsworth, an exhibition focusing on four of Wyeth’s first tempera paintings created from 1937 to 1939, alongside multiple studies, underscores a turning point in his career. For Christopher Brownawell, the museum’s director, the Wyeth Foundation’s collection-sharing arrangement with the Farnsworth offers many possibilities to reframe the artist.
“In the mid-20th century, when Wyeth was hitting his stride, the art world was drawn to abstraction, but he stayed his course,” said Mr. Brownawell, pointing out that “Christina’s World” was painted the same year Jackson Pollock made his iconic drip painting “No. 5, 1948.” “It’s a wonderful opportunity now to put Andrew’s work in a larger context with artists of his time, as well as artists today, with the resurgence of the figure in art.”
The deep trove and accessibility of Wyeth material should be welcome news to museums across the country.
“Andrew Wyeth has always been central to our understanding of American realism in the 20th century,” said Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, curator of American art at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia.
“Wyeth and other realists of his day were very much invested in concerns of the period and concerns that are not behind us — tensions around race, the dignity of the working class, issues of the environment, wartime trauma,” he continued. “Anything that has to do with him is important for any scholar of American art.”