Review of ‘Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life’

Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life
Richard Meryman

Andrew Wyeth, arguably America's best-known living artist, is at once our most popular and most denigrated painter. For a half-century, his spare and luminous evocations of rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine have attracted an enormous public following, even as art establishment critics have routinely condemned his work as reactionary and out of step with contemporary trends.

The widely divergent views of Wyeth, combined with his complicated persona and reclusive ways, make him a challenging subject. Fortunately, Richard Meryman brings special strengths to this first comprehensive examination of the artist's life.

The son of a painter — his father was principal of the Corcoran Gallery of Art school when Richard was born in Washington, D.C. 70 years ago — Meryman was a top writer for the original Life magazine before becoming a freelance writer in 1972. He and Wyeth hit it off when he profiled the painter for Life in 1964, and Wyeth subsequently chose Meryman to be his biographer.

Accepted into the Wyeth family inner circle, Meryman over three decades accumulated a large trove of astoundingly candid comments from the artist's redoubtable wife and two sons, his gifted siblings, and numerous friends, neighbors and models. Having absorbed Wyeth's deepest feelings and ideas, and the memories, anxieties and passions that have animated his life and art, the author has succeeded in creating an intimate and vivid portrait of an artist at work.

Raised in a lively household where imagination and creativity were encouraged, Wyeth was deeply influenced by his domineering father, N.C. Wyeth, the great illustrator. A sickly child tutored at home, Andrew was unusually close to his talented, driven father who, says Meryman, became "his role model," although he "swore never to be like him." N.C.'s tragic death at age 63, when a train hit his stalled car at a crossing, stimulated greater seriousness in his son's art and has haunted him ever since.

Central to Andrew Wyeth's saga are two larger-than-life figures: his father, whom he worshiped and feared, and his wife, Betsy, a formidable woman indeed. The fascinating cast of characters also includes a number of individuals familiar to those who know Wyeth's work: the indomitable, crippled Maine woman, Christina Olson, heroine of Christina's World; the artist's close friend, alcoholic Maine fisherman Walt Anderson; and his Pennsylvania neighbors, the brooding German-born farmer Karl Kuerner and his wife, Anna, who would grow increasingly deranged over the years. "I'm involved with the people I paint. They become my friends," Wyeth says of those who pose for him. "They're not people I paint and send home."

Meryman devotes much attention to the depictions of Helga Testorf, the German-refugee neighbor in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, whom Wyeth painted secretly for 15 years before creating a sensation when he unveiled the series to his wife and the public.

Meryman explores the secrecy surrounding the series, the complicity of family members who kept Betsy in the dark, the reason the pictures were finally revealed, Betsy's ambivalent reactions, and Wyeth's disappointment at the barrage of bad reviews that greeted the series at the National Gallery of Art in 1987. Critics not only questioned the quality of his work but speculated about whether he and his model had had an affair, and whether the artist's wife was really unaware of what was going on.

Meryman's comprehensive examination of the circumstances surrounding the Helga suite is convincingly credible, making it plain that those who said "the whole event was a hoax concocted by Andrew and Betsy to boost sales" were wrong.

In truth, Wyeth deserves better. As Meryman points out, Betsy had displayed great jealousy toward a young woman whom Wyeth painted before he began the Helga series. His wife had even issued an edict: if ever he produced a similar sequence, she ordered, "don't tell me." In an interesting coda, we learn that Helga has been accepted by Betsy, and helps take care of the somewhat frail, infirm painter, who turns 80 this month.

No one who reads this sympathetic but probing biography will ever look at Wyeth's seemingly serene pictures the same way again. Descriptions of the context and significance of major works are bound to enhance appreciation for paintings that include such masterpieces as Christina's World (1948), Karl (1948), The Patriot (1964), Alvaro and Christina (1968), Barracoon (1976), and Night Shadow (1979).

The book could use more color plates and an index, but these quibbles aside, this is as rich and nuanced a treatment of the elusive Andrew Wyeth as we will ever see.

Whether or not Meryman's biography stills the art-world chorus that slavishly condemns the work of this American master, nothing is likely to diminish Andrew Wyeth's appeal as a best-selling, much-beloved artist and as a record-breaking museum exhibition subject. This exemplary portrait of a remarkable person — and painter — deserves careful reading by his vast public, admirers and detractors alike.

Stephen May writes about art and culture from Washington, D.C. and Maine.

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