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

The youngest of the children — sickly Andrew — watched his sister suffer, and learned to simply absorb their father’s rage. That bitterness would emerge much later, refined and purified, seeping from paintings many people considered peaceful and rustic.


EVEN AS A child, Andrew Wyeth walked with an unusual swaying gait, toes splayed out almost sideways, due to a hip defect. He attended just a few days of school before N.C. removed him for tutoring at home. He and his friends dressed as the characters his father illustrated — Andrew loved Robin Hood — and roamed the woods around Chadds Ford. Otherwise, he grew up largely isolated from the place where he lived, and even from his particular century.

That isolation continued into adulthood; when Andrew married his wife, Betsy, they lived in a house at the foot of the hill below N.C.’s “Big House,” and N.C. often surprised them by arriving unannounced. But he invaded the marriage of Andrew’s older brother, Nathaniel, even further. N.C. carried on an affair with Nathaniel’s wife, Caroline, whom the rest of the family ultimately came to hate.

N.C.’s protective, smothering love ended one day in 1945, when he approached a railroad track in his car. Caroline’s small son — named after N.C. — sat in the passenger seat. Somehow the car stalled, and the train destroyed it and its occupants, rolling and shoving them down the track. Neighbors speculated that the aging illustrator had killed himself — back home, his Bible lay open to a passage on adultery — but family members dismiss this possibility. Not with the child, they say.

N.C.’s death struck Andrew with the force of a broken dam: a blow, yes, but also a release. In the following months he painted Winter 1946, the haunted image of a young boy running, tumbling down a hill near Andrew’s home. In his mind he became the boy, with one hand extended into empty air, grasping for something to catch hold of; the train tracks where N.C. died lay on the other side of the hill, and in the painting the hill became the father himself, a great swell of land that seemed to heave up like a breathing chest. The hill was, Andrew said later, referring to N.C., “a portrait of him.”

That painting marked a shift in Andrew’s work. He began using his pictures to document his life, often personified in a landscape, an artifact or another person; he might paint a cattle trough or an old man sleeping in a boat, but beneath the skin of the painting, the viewer can sense bones moving.