For seven decades, realist painter Andrew Wyeth crafted haunting scenes of American life, from the harsh, wintry landscapes of Maine to the struggles of Black Americans living in Pennsylvania in the mid-20th century. Now, thousands of Wyeth's works—many never shown publicly before—are available to museums, researchers and the public, thanks to a collections-sharing arrangement orchestrated by the late artist’s foundation.
The Wyeth Foundation for American Art is turning over its collection of nearly 7,000 Wyeth pieces to the Brandywine River Museum of Art (BRMA) in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and the Farnsworth Art Museum (FAM) in Rockland, Maine, per a joint statement. Both museums are in regions where Wyeth lived and worked.
The collection is “deeply personal and gives significant insight into Wyeth’s artistic and career trajectory,” per the release. The statement adds that the formerly unseen drawings, which make up the bulk of the collection, “will provide a vast trove of information that [reveals] Wyeth’s thought process and experimentation with how to stage or represent different scenes.”
To manage the jointly located collection, the BRMA is hiring a new curator, a position funded by the foundation, to lead research, create exhibitions and loan the pieces to other institutions. Both museums will display a rotating, year-round selection of Wyeth’s work, including paintings, watercolors, sketches, sketchbooks and other materials.
Of the 7,000 pieces in the collection, only around 1,000 have ever been displayed in public, making the arrangement a boon for museums and the art-going public at large.
Wyeth and his wife and business manager, Betsy Wyeth, had a “somewhat curatorial view of how they liked to share what’s seen,” Virginia Logan, executive director of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art told the New York Times' Hilarie M. Sheets. “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.”
It was Betsy who masterminded the new agreement, the Times reports. The Wyeths set up the foundation together in 2002 and, several years before the artist's death in 2009, Betsy created the plan for eventually sharing the collection with the world. The arrangement took effect following her death in 2020.
Born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Wyeth grew up surrounded by art. His father was N.C. Wyeth, an accomplished illustrator who taught his children to paint. He was apparently a good teacher, too: When Wyeth was just 20, he exhibited his work at New York City’s Macbeth Gallery and sold nearly every painting. His career took off from there.
The artist found inspiration in the rural landscapes and people near his home in Pennsylvania and his summer home in Maine, often exploring themes of nostalgia and loneliness in his realistic style. One of his best-known works is Christina’s World, a 1948 painting that depicts a woman trying to pull herself up a hill toward a farmhouse. The piece was inspired by Wyeth’s neighbor, a woman who had developed a degenerative muscle disease as a child and refused to use a wheelchair, opting to crawl instead.
“The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless,” Wyeth said of the painting, according to the Museum of Modern Art, where the painting is held.
Wyeth and Betsy met in 1939 and were married in 1940. She quickly became one of his artistic muses, but also served as his biggest champion and advisor in business, encouraging him to turn down paying illustration work to focus on painting instead. Betsy often came up with the names for her husband’s paintings and she likely helped him develop his “camera eye,” a skill she picked up from her newspaper editor father, according to her obituary in the Portland Press Herald.
“She didn’t paint the pictures. She didn’t get the ideas. But she made me see more clearly what I wanted,” the painter told biographer Richard Meryman for his 1996 book Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, as reported by Smithsonian magazine’s Henry Adams.
Through their foundation, the couple has continued to posthumously fund and promote the study of American art in an attempt to encourage interest in both the nation’s creative history and the painter’s work.
Though many art critics were tepid about Wyeth’s paintings during his lifetime—the Observer’s Daniel Grant notes the painter was slammed for everything from his palette to his personal political views—he’s also been described as one of the “most important and quintessentially American artists of his time,” as Liz Ronk wrote for Time magazine on what would have been Wyeth’s 100th birthday in 2017.
But for the artist who, per Smithsonian magazine, cared most about “intensity—painting emotion into objects”—it remains to be seen how modern viewers will perceive his work now that much more of it is available to critique.