The rolling, historic hills of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley offer much to visitors, but one attraction supersedes all others: this is where artists are made.
In Artists of Wyeth Country, W. Barksdale Maynard tells the story of three artists who came to prominence here and provides a guide to places that nurtured their development. This richly illustrated book transports readers into the world of Howard Pyle, Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth. The book’s second half details excursions that make the locations and people in this corner of Chester County come alive.
Maynard, who previously coauthored The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait, devotes considerable attention to Andrew Wyeth, the reclusive painter who, depending on the critic, was considered a master of accurate understatement or a shallow exhibitionist demonstrating his skill with a brush. Maynard takes a fresh look, based on existing materials and new interviews, to gain perspective on the artist, who died in 2009 at age 91. It was a challenging task, given the legendary reticence of Wyeth and those closest to him, as well as the ongoing desire of many to guard his privacy, even now.
Howard Pyle and the Brandywine school
The Brandywine school of art began with Howard Pyle, the extraordinary late 19th-century illustrator who became the Wyeths’ artistic progenitor. Maynard characterizes the Brandywine tradition as a blend of “superb draftsmanship, sumptuous handling of oil paint, gripping storylines, and every detail rooted in extremely close visual observation—if not exhaustive historical research.”
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle made his career in the golden age of magazine illustration, before photography came to full power. He stressed accuracy, researching subjects to replicate in detail whatever he was to illustrate. The colonial period and Revolutionary War were particular specialties. Pyle is best remembered for bringing to vivid life the books Marooned (1909) and King Arthur (1903).
War and Walden in Chadds Ford
The connection between art and this area begins with Pyle, whose great-grandmother was a child living here on September 11, 1777, when British forces defeated colonial troops at the Battle of Brandywine, the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War. The history of land that is now Chadds Ford Township would infuse the imaginations of Pyle and the Wyeths.
At the end of the 19th century, Pyle, a practicing artist and teacher, established a summer school on farmland where the battle occurred. His students were housed in buildings that had been headquarters for General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, and they set their easels before scenery that had changed little in the intervening years. N.C. Wyeth came from Massachusetts to study with Pyle, and settled here in 1911 to paint and raise a family of artists.
N.C., who grew up near Walden Pond, was influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy and passed on to his children Thoreau’s reverence for nature and Pyle’s passion for accuracy. His teaching took root most deeply in Andrew, born, perhaps fittingly, one century to the day after Thoreau. Both N.C. and Andrew incorporated walking into their artistic practice, observing and then precisely recording what they encountered in this tiny corner of Pennsylvania from 1902 to 2008.
Comparing Andrew Wyeth to Thoreau, Maynard writes that like this “peripatetic” writer, “Wyeth was a peripatetic painter: he walked, he observed, and then he painted what he had seen…His narrow artistic range, in the end, was the range that a daily walk afforded, and no more—a fact that largely held true even in later years, when lameness compelled him to drive his Chevy Suburban or Jeep Wagoneer…through fields and woodlots.“
Andrew Wyeth’s rise
Though father and son were similar in approach, their results diverged. Observing Andrew’s increasingly pale palette, N.C. worried that the work wouldn’t sell.
Andrew was a paradox, a major American artist in spite of himself. As Maynard explains, he was a hyperrealist, rejecting the warmth and color of impressionism to record, for example, light moving across blades of grass or the grain of wood in a broom handle. His palette was bleak, his tones muted. He was micro-regional when regionalism was out of favor. He prized truth and accuracy, yet rejected the camera as a compositional tool and edited out signs of creeping modernity, such as high-tension wires and paved highways. He was reclusive when artists increasingly courted attention.
Though Wyeth eschewed imagination for realism, he painted a world eclipsed by time, which existed in the past and in his mind. Despite flouting all conventions of a successful career, he rose to prominence. How?
Maynard explains that Wyeth’s art was an elegy for an idealized, more rural country, which coincided with public nostalgia for a simpler time. “His career exactly coincided with the steepest decline in farming ever recorded,” Maynard writes. “At the height of his fame, from 1950 to 1970, half of all farms disappeared.”
Wyeth also benefitted from location in a region fueled by the commercial success and philanthropic interests of the DuPont family, who collected American art and antiques, founded and supported museums, and contributed to a growing interest in American heritage in decorative objects, artifacts, and art.
Finally, Wyeth was fortunate to have an astute wife, Betsy, who encouraged his vision, protected his image and output, and shielded him from outside distractions. Betsy Wyeth managed the artist’s career, and set the stage for his artistic legacy by organizing the publication of mainstream books that popularized his work and kept Wyeth in the public eye.
Still pondering Wyeth
Maynard provides a wealth of information with which to consider the artistic heritage of the Brandywine Valley and the enigma of Andrew Wyeth, writing, “We are left to ponder… Did he make the most of the unparalleled advantages he was afforded in life? Was his art a high quest or, to some extent, a kind of crowd-pleasing performance based on virtuoso skills in imitating reality?”
What, When, Where
Artists of Wyeth Country: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth. By W. Barksdale Maynard. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021. 258 pages, $23. Get it from Temple University Press.