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

During the show, I followed an older couple as they stood in silence before a Basquiat, then moved to one of Warhol’s “oxidation” paintings, which mixed copper and urine. “This is just strange,” the man said, angling back toward Jamie’s paintings of apparently idyllic rural life. “Let’s go back to the Wyeths.”

But what this couple and other expectant admirers often overlook is that the Wyeths — the paintings and the people — are far, far stranger.

THE WYETH FAMILY saga is older than the Wyeths, in a way. It starts with a Chadds Ford painter named Howard Pyle, born before the Civil War.

Pyle wrote and illustrated the legendary Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and regularly painted such childlike subjects as pirates and knights. But he painted them with such unusual intimacy and detail that Vincent Van Gogh once said his works “strike me dumb with admiration.” At the start of the 20th century, Pyle’s sense of swagger and romance captured the imagination of a young painter named N.C. Wyeth, who migrated from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to study under him. They made excursions into the countryside to examine the landscape of the Battle of Brandywine, and wore old uniforms and weapons as costumes.

Schooled by Pyle in the manlier aspects of art, young N.C. struck out for the American West, where for months he traveled as a cowboy, a rancher and a horseback mail rider, making illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. He was a big man, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, although he did have unexpected delicacies; his small hands, for instance, fluttered like birds emerging from his sleeves. And his grandchildren always heard from their parents that “Pa’s voice was like the train! We mistook the train every day, thinking it was Pa calling with his booming voice.” But later they discovered a family recording he’d made on a home phonograph, and were shocked to hear his high, lilting speech.

N.C. inherited Pyle’s books, costumes and eye for success. By illustrating everything from Robinson Crusoe to Coca-Cola advertisements, he built a grand life for his young family in Chadds Ford: a stately home and grounds, extravagant cars, lavish Jazz Age parties with the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. His five children all exhibited brilliance: future inventor Nathaniel, musician Ann, painters Henriette, Carolyn and Andrew. The father nurtured their talents, building studios and nooks where they could study untroubled by the outside world. He excited their imaginations with rambling walks through the forest, he illustrated their nighttime stories at their bedsides, and at Christmas he’d climb onto the roof and stomp around in the snow like Santa.

Beneath the pastoral surface, though, a darkness took hold in N.C.; to support his family’s lifestyle, he painted other people’s visions instead of his own. His pain grew more acute as his children found their own voices as artists, and the father became overbearing, controlling, pushing them. Carolyn, with her rebellious streak and eerie artistic gift, bore the brunt of her father’s scrutiny. When she failed to follow his direction, he sometimes locked her in the chicken coop.