Andrew Wyeth's Chadds Ford studio opens to visitors

Posted: July 02, 2012

During the 68 years that Andrew Wyeth worked in his Chadds Ford studio building very few people aside from models got to see the room in which he painted.

Signs at the entrance informed casual passers-by that they could not impose: "I am working, so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs." And, to show he meant business: "Beware of the dog."

But now anyone with $8 and an hour to spare can see where America's most popular artist (or was that Norman Rockwell?) created many of America's most beloved paintings.

Betsy Wyeth, the artist's widow, gave the studio to the museum in 2010, a year after he died. After a meticulous restoration the museum is opening the building, originally a schoolhouse, to public tours beginning Tuesday.

The studio building is a short walk from another part of the Wyeth family legacy, N.C. Wyeth's house and studio, where Andrew grew up and which museum visitors also can visit.

N.C. bought the 1875 schoolhouse in 1925 so his daughter Henriette could use it as a studio. Two subsequent additions transformed it into a house, into which Andrew and Betsy moved in 1940, shortly after they were married.

What do we expect to learn from invading a space that was once a private sanctuary? Can the experience help us penetrate the artist's thinking? Does looking at a paint-spattered easel and cans stuffed with brushes really tell us anything we don't already know?

Artists' studios are popular places, and some, like Cezanne's in the south of France, have even become shrines. Wyeth's studio has that potential, especially given its proximity to N.C.'s, and to Karl Kuerner's farm, which Andrew adopted as a kind of second home.

All three sites are included in a day-long tour the museum calls "The Andrew Wyeth Experience," a focused immersion in Wyeth's environment that promises insight into his life, sources of inspiration, and creative process. This tour costs $100; it includes lunch and a $40 contribution toward the expenses of running the Wyeth studio.

It's always fun to see first-hand the things and places that artists transformed into art — to contemplate the weathered reality of Kuerner's barn, a favorite Wyeth subject, or the famous Olson house in Cushing, Maine, owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum in nearby Rockland and the setting for Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World.

But seeing what the artist saw isn't the same as insight. The creative process takes place in the artist's mind; it's involves a conjunction of imagination, memory, experience, emotion, and a sense of drama. No museum can take you there.

That's not to deny the fascination of entering Wyeth's primary working environment. (He also had a studio in Maine, where he spent summers.)

In the small, narrow library room, for instance, one notices among the shelves of books volumes on Old Masters such as Frans Hals, John Constable and Antonio Pisanello.

There's a small bust of Lord Nelson, the hero of the battle ofTrafalgar, and another of Napoleon. A human skeleton hangs on a stand. A small box-like diorama by an artist named Sheperd Paine, one of three, recreates a Wyeth painting of a costumed skeleton titled Dr. Syn.

A rusty blunderbuss, a classic pirate prop, rests on a broad windowsill. There are film cans, one of which contains a print of Errol Flynn's classic swashbuckler Captain Blood.

The most telling detail of all? Dozens of toy soldiers (the museum prefers to call them "military miniatures"), which Wyeth began to collect as a child. In the next room, where he screened his films, and where son Jamie once set up his studio in a screened-off corner, hundreds more stand, regimented, in cases.

What does all this tell us? That Wyeth was a romantic and a dreamer whose theatrical fantasy life was nourished by the tales of derring-do his father illustrated. More to the point, that he never lost his childhood fascination with heroes and other larger-than-life characters. (Karl Kuerner, who lived just over the hill from the studio, was one such.)

But we knew all that. I had hoped that the painting room, the inner sanctum, would reveal a Rosebud secret, but no such luck. For an artist of worldwide fame and fortune, the space where he worked is rather prosaic.

There's a sturdy easel with its back to the door and a stool before it. Opposite the easel is a large mirror that, as the room is arranged, reflects a reproduction of the painting sitting on the easel, of a dog called Raccoon.

Reproduced drawings litter the floor, some bearing a dog's paw-prints. There's worn sofa and a white cabinet with eight shallow drawers, a type used to store prints and drawings, and a table bearing various painting materials, including an egg carton (for mixing tempera pigments).

Wyeth did listen to music, but the machine and the attendant classical records are in the adjoining room. Another telling detail: There aren't any auxiliary lights — Wyeth, like the Old Masters, relied on indirect sunlight that came through a large multi-paned window.

All in all, it's pretty bare-bones, like the studio of a third-year art student, not the den of a seasoned campaigner who labored in this room for nearly seven decades.

But the studio does teach us something: The soul of an artist, especially Andrew Wyeth, emanates from his art, not from his studio. Not by coincidence, the museum has put up a small exhibition of works on paper, mostly watercolors, in which he takes his studio, inside and out, as his subject.

For understanding the way Wyeth responded to his surroundings, this show of works made between 1946 and 2005 is just as useful as the tour. The images document how he picked out and valorized the most mundane details — a half-open shutter, light reflected off a cupboard door, a still life of four pumpkins at the base of a chimney.

And model and studia assistant Helga Testorf is here too, not posing as she did in the suite of mostly nudes that caused such a rumpus in 1986 but dressed in a bright red jacket, hunched over a painting of her own.

There are only 21 works in this show, but they reveal the studio as Wyeth himself saw it, which can only enhance the experience of seeing it yourself.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.


Where Wyeth worked

Tours of Andrew Wyeth's studio are available at scheduled times Tuesdays through Sundays through Nov. 18. Each tour is limited to 14 visitors. Tickets are $8 in addition to museum admission and must be reserved.

The related exhibition "A Painter's View" continues through Oct. 28. The museum, on Route 1, Chadds Ford, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $12 general and $6 for visitors 65 and older, students and visitors six through 12. Free Sundays until noon through Nov. 18. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|