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

Consider a tempera called Ground Hog Day. It appears at first to be a picture of domestic tranquility. A cup and plate are set out for dinner, lit by a ray of sunlight slanting through a window. On a longer, closer look, the viewer may sense unease, even anxiety: Why is there a knife, but no fork? After N.C. died, Andrew found a father surrogate in Karl Kuerner, a German immigrant farmer who lived near the Wyeths. Andrew feared and admired Kuerner, who alternated big-heartedness and violence, beating his daughters while his wife, Anna, slowly went mad. Andrew wanted to record the chaos of their lives, and originally included Anna in his composition to embody madness, and the Kuerners’ guard dog as violence. But finally he removed the woman and dog, trusting that their emotional residue would remain, and instead painted a chained log outside the window: suppressed violence.

For all the vulnerability and feeling that Andrew poured into his paintings in the coming decades, he largely hid himself from the public. N.C. had embraced the role of the swashbuckling artist, living a life as big as his oversized canvases. But Andrew, reflecting on his father, felt that with every magnificent party and hearty slap on the back, N.C. had given away a piece of himself. He fed the world in nibbles. So Andrew resolved to hide. He only moved among the masses at his epic Halloween parties in Chadds Ford, during which he could observe people from behind the safety of a prosthetic face.

As he retreated from public life, Andrew tucked himself into a world that seemed to grow stranger, less aware of any social construct. A friend of mine who is Jewish visited Andrew at his home — called Brinton’s Mill — about a decade ago, and after introductions, Andrew pulled on a Nazi uniform jacket. Intimations of Nazi sympathy have dogged the Wyeth family for years, touched off by a family fascination with their German immigrant neighbors.

I planned to ask Andrew about the Nazi uniform.

Was he simply playing a game?

few people who truly know the Wyeths well is Frolic Weymouth, a 72-year-old du Pont heir who was named after a dog. He’s a painter in his own right, and lives on an ancient 250-acre estate called Big Bend, on an oxbow bend in the Brandywine.

He’s an authority on the Wyeths. When he invited me into his sitting room, Weymouth pointed to an enormous painting on his wall, of a horseman in the snow. It’s painted thickly, with heavy strokes. “N.C. Wyeth,” Weymouth said. “He said it was his favorite.”

Strolling around Big Bend is chronologically disorienting. When construction began on the main house, Galileo was still alive. The Renaissance still flourished in Europe, and in the as-yet-unnamed New World, Puritans had yet to discover and burn their first witch.

The stone manor is filled with tortoises: tortoise figures in the rug, on the walls, even on Weymouth’s belt buckle. He wears tortoiseshell glasses. I asked why, and Weymouth explained that his land is closely associated with the Indian tribes James Fenimore Cooper wrote about in The Last of the Mohicans. “Remember when they’re about to kill him, but he’s saved at the last moment when they see the tortoise tattoo on his chest?” Weymouth asked. “It’s those fellows.”