Wyeth’s World

Their paintings have brought the bucolic beauty of the Brandywine Valley to millions of people around the globe. But spend time with Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, and you’ll soon realize that their art and lives are stranger and darker than they first appear

SPANNING THE BRANDYWINE River, where Pennsylvania and Delaware meet, there’s a bridge to an imagined place.

[sidebar]The bridge looks as you might expect: It’s a covered bridge, wood, wide enough for one horse and carriage, with red-painted boards and stone pillars that stand against the lap and splash of the river. In summer, the light glows green through a screen of leaves; in winter, it comes through white and clean. People call this place — this imagined place — Wyeth Country.

One-laned roads loop and curve through the countryside, and wooden fences walk across hills like old men. Horses and cattle wander in and out of barns. It’s a country built from brick and board and leather and furrowed soil; little wonder painters and admirers of painters have traipsed this valley for generations.

On one particularly fine road, where the view skips across a series of sunlit dells, a smaller lane diverges. A little sign tacked to a tree politely warns that this is a private drive. And the Wyeths, as you again might expect, are private people. For three generations in this corner of Pennsylvania, the Wyeths have built an unprecedented artistic dynasty: the great illustrator N.C., then Andrew, then Jamie. Their influence is immeasurable; they have introduced more of the world to this region than anyone but Rocky Balboa. They are America’s most adored painters, but they are also, it turns out, perhaps the most misunderstood.

Past the sign, down the smaller road, the scenic grace reaches an intensity that’s difficult to believe; the colors and landscape take on the saturation and composition of a painting. Distant white houses settle against a green background, and a white horse rears in the grass near the road ahead — and then continues to rear, suspended in the air. It’s a carousel horse, frozen in its finery. All of this conspires to catch visitors leaning forward on the balls of their feet, as though to inspect a two-dimensional watercolor.

Then, just beyond: an ugly sign planted in the ground, painted with a frightening skull-and-crossbones, and a message:

KEEP OUT

The sign is unexpected, a dark stroke on an otherwise charming canvas. It recalls the pirates painted by the Wyeth family patriarch, N.C. Wyeth, when he illustrated classic books like Treasure Island, where characters like Billy Bones and Long John Silver hoisted their black Jolly Rogers and prepared to slit throats. There is a streak of something dangerous in the Wyeths; the extent of America’s misunderstanding of them — the depth of their difference — would become clear to me during coming days spent with the Wyeth family, beyond the skull-and-crossbones.

I’d first met Jamie Wyeth a couple of years ago, as he prepared to open a show called “Factory Work” at the Brandywine River Museum. As he arranged paintings by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and himself, he wondered how the museum’s regular visitors — expecting scenes of rural tranquility — would react. “Do you think they’ll love it?” he said, grinning.

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