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

Gradually, Jamie grows more reclusive, like his father. When he paints on Monhegan Island in Maine, as he has for many years, he drags around a refrigerator-size bait box, and when he sees something he wants to paint, he tips the big box on its side and crawls in with his brushes and canvas. The smell of bait, he says, keeps tourists from coming too close. He has to do this less these days, since he’s moved to his own island, where no one can watch him at all.

After the funeral, Jamie walked to a nearby grave in the woods that marked the resting place of a relative. A different mood settled on him, a slightly darker shade of his usual ruddy tone. The Wyeths’ work has always held a curiosity about, and a sensitivity to, life’s end. Andrew’s, especially.

“I HOPE YOU like champagne, because that’s what we’re drinking,” Andrew said.

Helga sat at his right hand, at one of Andrew’s favorite restaurants, in a renovated blacksmith workshop. She’s older now, but her hard jaw and harder eyes remain unmistakable.

Joyce Stoner, an art conservationist from the University of Delaware, sat with them. Jamie took a seat. I said, “What are we celebrating?”

Helga raised a glass. “Wednesday.”

Andrew wore what appeared to be a Robin Hood costume, but no one seemed to notice. It was a brown leather tunic with puffed shoulder caps, and black hose with proper Sherwood Forest shoes. He was as slight and lithe as a fairy, and next to him, Helga sat as solid as a Panzer tank. She now takes care of Andrew like a second wife — Betsy was at home, packing for a trip to Maine — driving him here and there, holding his arm on stairways. The passing of decades has matured their unusual relationship. I stared at her — at her creamy out-of-season sweater that matched her hair — and her eyes swung to land on me like blue hammers. Even now, these years later, I could see what he had seen in her.

“I saw something in the paper about your new painting,” Jamie told his father. He meant Goose Step, an enormous landscape in which a lone goose hesitates to step into a stream. The painting sold almost the moment it went on display at the Brandywine River Museum, and the story in the local paper hastened fans to view it before its new owner whisked it away later that day. “It’s like a hootchie-cootchie show,” Jamie said. “‘Hurry! Hurry!’”

Andrew threw back his head with laughter. “I love it,” he said. After all these years, and after his staggering success — perhaps no other artist has captured both critical and popular acclaim to the same degree — the 91-year-old painter is still sensitive to acceptance and rejection. He was the first living American artist ever to receive a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; every relevant magazine has featured him on its cover; he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; his work has shown around the world, and one particular painting — the masterful Christina’s World — has been exalted with the highest form of American praise: Through imitation, it has become a cliché.

But for a long time, one particular acknowledgment eluded him.