Watercolor: Essay: A Visit With Andrew Wyeth, March 9, 2006

Editor-in-chief of Watercolor magazine, M. Stephen Doherty, recounts his memorable visit to the home of legendary watercolorist Andrew Wyeth.

by M. Stephen Doherty

In this account of my visit with Andrew Wyeth, I hope to convey the sense that he is like most of your artist-friends, only more famous. He is jovial, friendly, modest, and charming; and if you spent any time talking to him, the conversation would likely be about you and your artwork because he is genuinely interested in knowing other painters. If you did manage to engage him in a discussion of his recent painting activities, he would describe his excitement about working in a nearby meadow, hiring a model who always assumes beautiful poses, or watching the paint wash off a sheet of paper that fell into a nearby stream. He might even complain about the same things that frustrate your friends-critics who don't understand his work, local museums that ignore him, or art-materials manufacturers who stopped making a paper he loved. Wyeth would never brag about a major museum exhibition of his drawings, the staggeringly high price for one of his egg temperas, or a major honor that was bestowed on him. In fact, if he boasted about any aspect of his 70-plus years as an artist, it would be about having been able to support himself and his family, bring attention to the history and beauty of his hometown, and share a bond with others who love art.

The circumstances of our meeting came about after I wrote to Mr. Wyeth proposing that we work together on an article titled "Andrew Wyeth Picks 20 Great American Watercolorists," which would be included in the fall 20th anniversary issue of Watercolor magazine. I mailed the letter to his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, along with several recent issues of Watercolor; and I faxed a copy of the letter to Mary Landa, his curator and the assistant to both Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, who has always been helpful to me in securing rights to reproduce artwork, among other matters. Within a week, I received a call from Ms. Landa saying that, much to her own surprise, Mr. Wyeth agreed to the article and wanted me to visit him to discuss its development. "Mr. Wyeth turns down most requests for interviews, photographs, and articles, but he likes you and appreciates what your magazine has done for him over the years," Ms. Landa said. "I would encourage you to come down for a visit sooner rather than later because he might change his mind given that there are so many activities going on right now that are related to the two museum exhibitions opening this month." I immediately suggested that we meet the next week on my birthday, March 9, and Ms. Landa said that would be fine and suggested the time or 10 a.m.

I had several more phone conversation with Ms. Landa regarding the time of the meeting, the concerns Mr. Wyeth had about coming up with a list of artists, and about my being prepared to suggest watercolorists. I also discussed my interest in taking photographs, and there was a last-minute conversation about making a presentation on behalf of the Portrait Society of America. Ms. Landa suggested we schedule another meeting at a later date for that presentation, one at which Gordon Wetmore, the chairman of the Portrait Society, might also be present.

For days before the meeting I was nervous about being adequately prepared, about being comfortable enough to carry on a conversation, and about saying or doing something foolish. If I was going to meet any other artist in the Philadelphia area at 10 a.m., I would have driven from my home that morning since it would only take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, but, because of my increasing anxiety, I decided to spend the previous night in Philadelphia to allow myself plenty of time for breakfast and the drive to Mr. Wyeth's home.

As usual, I woke up around 3:45 a.m. on March 9. I managed to get fall back asleep for another 90 minutes and finally got up, showered and dressed, watched CNN, reviewed my office e-mail, checked out of the hotel, and got on the road by 7 a.m. I reached Hank's Diner in Chadds Ford by 8 a.m., had a full breakfast, drove down to the Wyeth home to be sure of the directions, and killed time in the parking lot of the Brandywine River Museum until I thought it was finally an appropriate time to drive up to the Wyeth's home.

Ms. Landa met me at the side door of the house and invited me in where I was immediately greeted by both Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth. Mrs. Wyeth said she was leaving for her schoolhouse office, and Mr. Wyeth walked me through the main floor of their home and discussed some of the drawings and paintings on the walls. Mr. Wyeth proudly talked about one of Jamie Wyeth's watermedia paintings of a sea gull; a drawing by his father originally given to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. that Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth recently purchased at auction; a plaster cast of a Houdon sculpture of John Paul Jones; a watercolor of Helga Testorf that Mr. Wyeth gave to Mrs. Wyeth; and a important N.C. Wyeth painting that Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth purchased for a small sum that was the first N. C. Wyeth painting acquired for their collection.

Mr. Wyeth and I finally settled on a cushioned bench in a room with a huge open fireplace, linoleum flooring, two winged chairs, a long, wooden table and chairs, a chair on which was placed a pillow with a pirate's skull and crossbones, and a few carefully chosen objects on windowsills and tables, including two sets of bronze casts of Mr. Wyeth's hands. As I had expected from having seen photographs and paintings of the Wyeth's home, the interior décor of the stone house was simple, elegant, and comfortable.

I brought a canvas tote bag filled with art books and a camera bag into the house, and when we started our conversation about the magazine article, I pulled out a list I had prepared with about 25 names of artists who might be considered. Mr. Wyeth picked up a small yellow sheet of lined paper on which he had written the names of about 10 artists- including some obvious choices, such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent-a couple of artists I hadn't considered when preparing my list, and two contemporary artists-Jamie Wyeth and Bo Bartlett-who have close associations with Mr. Wyeth. 

After about 15 or 20 minutes of conversation about the proposed article, Mr. Wyeth gave me an autographed copy of the catalogue for an exhibition of his master drawings that was opening that evening at the Brandywine River Museum, then he offered me a glass of sweet apple cider and we moved to the winged chairs against the western wall of the room. As we sipped the cider, Mr. Wyeth talked about his enthusiasm for watercolor and his belief that the best artists have taken full advantage of the freedom it offers. "It's a personal medium that allows artists to get into their souls," he said, pointing to the left side of his chest. "It offers the promise of something deeper when artists allow the paint to move naturally, dripping off the page, picking up dust and dirt, and flowing into random patterns. And, although I admire the British artists who championed the medium, I believe American painters lifted it from the Academic into something fresh and alive."

Throughout our five-hour conversation, Mr. Wyeth interjected remembrances about his father, other artists, friends, and critics. As with most people, the seminal events of his youth were still very much in his thoughts, especially those during which his father guided his interest in art. "I was painting my very first watercolor, and my father picked up a brush and made broad stokes of the watercolor paint across the page because he saw I was working much too tightly," he remembered. "He didn't work much with watercolor, but he understood and appreciated its fundamental character and he encouraged me to take full advantage of it.

"My father always liked my watercolors and encouraged me to use the medium in a free, fluid manner," Mr. Wyeth continued. "I've always liked a lot of detail in my egg-tempera paintings, but I've taken a different approach to watercolor. I never work at an easel outdoors because I prefer to hold the paper in my lap, and I just toss one painting aside when I want to work on another. Sometimes I step on them, scratch them, or watch them blow into the river. Quite often it helps to have them washed by the river water," he said with a laugh. "Once a collector called very upset because a painting fell off the wall of his home, and it looked like the broken glass had scratched the watercolor paper. I went over to look at the damaged painting and immediately recognized that I put the scratch in the paper when I was working on it."

I suggested to Mr. Wyeth that I revise my list of great watercolorists, locate some paintings that would reflect his attitude about the use of the medium, and get his response to my selection. He agreed that would be an appropriate way of planning my article, and he encouraged me to send my recommendations to him directly.

After about an hour of conversation in his home, Mr. Wyeth and I climbed into his SUV vehicle and drove through the property surrounding his house and barns. As we settled into our seats, I said something about Mrs. Wyeth, and he immediately said, "You can call us Andy and Betsy." I tried to refer to them in that informal way from then on, but I felt very presumptuous.

We crossed over the Brandywine River near the lower falls, stopped so I could take photographs of Mr. Wyeth with his home and studio in the background, and talked about the work Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth had done on the buildings and waterway leading to the mill. He also pointed out the historic events that took place during the Battle of Brandywine during the American Revolution, and he mentioned that he and Mrs. Wyeth liked it when the lower floor of the stone building flooded. "People give us all sorts of plants for the grounds around the buildings, and they wash away every spring," he said with a chuckle. "Betsy and I actually like it when the river floods and brings water into the mill and throws brush along the river banks."

After driving across the fields and the river, Mr. Wyeth took me to the top of the road where Mrs. Wyeth restored a schoolhouse to use as her office. She showed me the notebooks holdings the catalog raisonné of Mr. Wyeth's work, family photographs on the walls, the honorary degrees and special recognitions he had received, and publications on the Wyeths that were waiting to be catalogued. Mrs. Wyeth asked if I wanted to see any of the photographs and documentation in the notebooks, and I indicated I would be especially interested in looking at Mr. Wyeth's recent work since it's unlikely I would have seen it. Hearing my request to view recent work, she pointed her finger at her husband and said, "Well there's not much of that!" I almost burst out laughing at the idea that after more than 60 years of marriage Mrs. Wyeth was still kidding Mr. Wyeth about his lack of productivity. It occurred to me that the remark went a long way in explaining her role as the artist's greatest champion, critic, facilitator, historian, and catalyst.

I felt privileged to listen to more conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth about current projects, museum and individual collections, events surrounding their first meeting in Maine, Mrs. Wyeth's early acquaintance with Christina Olsen, and other events both recent and past. It was clear to me they operated as if they were two halves of the same body, always closely connected and always appreciative of the other. It was also clear the romance that began some 60 years before was still strong, with each person feeling the same sense of attraction he or she experienced at their first meeting. It occurred to me that much of the conversation was similar to ones I had overheard between artists and spouses during my 27 years with American Artist. They complained to each other about museum directors and critics who were not as appreciative of Mr. Wyeth as they might be and about the heirs of private collectors who were selling Wyeth paintings rather than donating them to public institutions. The complaints weren't an indication of bitterness but, rather, a sign that after 60 years of looking for new opportunities to advance Wyeth's career they just didn't know how to stop. I've had the same kind of conversation with artists I consider to be among the most successful and honored people I know, so it didn't surprise me that the Wyeths were still looking for new ways to bring attention to Mr. Wyeth's art.

Around 12:30 p.m. Mr. Wyeth and I drove into Chadds Ford to meet his son, Jamie, at a nearby restaurant. We talked for about a half-hour while waiting for Jamie to arrive, and when it was clear something was delaying his arrival, we ordered lunch. Mr. Wyeth wears hearing aides in both ears, and they picked up the ambient noise in the restaurant and made it difficult for him to isolate the sound of my voice. I had to face him and speak louder so he could hear me clearly.

I asked Mr. Wyeth about some of the artists he had known, particularly those who worked in watercolor. He recalled a number of conversations with Edward Hopper, Millard Sheets, Paul Cadmus, and others, and he recounted conversations and correspondence with the great impresario Lincoln Kirstein. Once Jamie arrived, we continued to talk about artists, art organizations, and approaches to painting. Mr. Wyeth remembered that his father had been painting in a local private home where George Inness once worked, and N.C. discovered that Inness had leaned his wet palette up against a closet wall in such a way that oil color transferred to the wall in a pattern following the shape of the palette. "My father wrote down all the colors and the sequence of the colors," Mr. Wyeth explained. Jamie commented that he had never heard that story before.

After lunch, I took photographs of Andy and Jamie Wyeth, then Jamie headed back to his studio, and Andy drove me to his home so I could pick up my car and return to New York. As we were climbing into his SUV, Mr. Wyeth commented that Jamie was a wonderful son, and he was so pleased that they were able to talk frequently to each other about art.

After saying goodbye, I started reflecting on the extraordinary experience I had with Mr. Wyeth. In many ways, the conversation was exactly like those I had with hundreds of other painters.  He had the same concerns about the public's reception of his artwork, the same curiosities about the ways other artists create their pictures, and the same sense of amusement about the silly things that happen to painters. I'm sure I wouldn't have heard any of that if I were recording the conversation but, since we just talked informally between ourselves, he felt comfortable telling me things.

Of course the difference between that extended conversation and all the others I've had with artists is that Mr. Wyeth has 20 honorary degrees hanging on his wall, an elaborate waist coat he wore when inducted into the French Legion of Honor, medals and awards of great significance, and an art collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

He said a number of things that, if taken out of context, might prove to be embarrassing; but I considered those remarks to be a sign of trust between us and an indication that-like most successful people-he is as motivated and ambitious today as he was 70 years ago. Having a lot of money in the bank never changes a person's attitude about making the most of each new day, about wondering how others see their work, and about never being complacent about their art. Every good painter wants to get better and wants to connect to new audiences, and Mr. Wyeth is no exception.

Mrs. Wyeth is also charming and completely devoted to her husband and his career. Jamie is bright and worldly, and he clearly loves being in the company of his father. Mr. Wyeth also appreciates having a "good son" who shares his passion for art.

I'm sure Mr. Wyeth measures his success in terms of being able to support a family, restore historic properties, preserve his father's work and reputation, facilitate the careers of his sons and granddaughter, and live on the land he has loved since he was a boy. My admiration and respect for him grew tremendously as I enjoyed his company and learned more about the man behind the legend.

To read M. Stephen Doherty's "Andrew Wyeth Picks 20 Great American Watercolorists," check out the fall 2006 20th anniversary issue of Watercolor magazine.

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2 thoughts on “Watercolor: Essay: A Visit With Andrew Wyeth, March 9, 2006

  1. A chapter has come to an end but Wyeth’s book will be forever writen on the walls of civilization. As a child (50yrs ago, then 5) I remember my family including the Wyeth name in conversations. In the ’70’s my art interest started to peak as I declaried a BFA my goal. Abstraction was the rage but who, I thought was this man, Andrew Wyeth who did not follow the trend. His work was refreshing and a thread I held onto. In the ’80’s I married and we had a son in 85. We honored my son with the name of Andrew. In 92 I got my MFA in Art Education from RISD, my only mistake was not then to make the effort to meet Mr. Wyeth while I was in the East. I beleave it was in the early ’90s I went to Kansas City to see the Andrew Wyeth show. I had waited so long to see, for the first time, a body of his work. Unfortunate for me I waited for the last day of the showing and it was a mad house with viewers 3 to 4 rows deep from each painting as the line outside ran long around the grounds. As I too come from a long line of artists (A.B. Durand) I feel a sadness this week for our country has lost a magnificent link to who we are as a nation and people.
    Harry Gray

  2. Thank you Stephen. This wonderful article stirs up such deep emotions for me. In 2009 I visited the Olson’s house in Maine for the third time, and I was astonished and deeply moved to find Andrew Wyeth’s grave there. Apart from my great admiration for Wyeth’s work I have often tried to work out why he has such a profound and magnetic affect on me over such a long period since I first saw Christina’s World in 1970 on one of my first visits to the US. Most of the feelings his work evokes in me are wordless, suspended.

    Fergus A. Ryan
    Dublin Ireland