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

And, of course, The Last of the Mohicans was illustrated by none other than N.C. Wyeth himself. It almost seemed too much: the Indians, the Brandywine, the Wyeth connections. The house was suspended in a web of historical and artistic intersections.

Weymouth himself is doubly related to the Wyeths: He married Andrew Wyeth’s niece Anna long ago, and Jamie Wyeth married Weymouth’s cousin Phyllis. And he remembers the misperceptions the world had about the clan: “They all thought here’s the Wyeth family, and they’re all wonderful, loving each other, and here’s Santa Claus, and they all just love Christmas, and Pa’s up playing on the roof stomping at Christmastime,” he said. But he remembers that Carolyn, Andrew’s sister, said otherwise: “It’s bullshit. It was awful. I hated it. My father hated me.”

Even as family and friends around them cracked from the strain, the Wyeth men — the painters — seem to draw strength from the subversion of expectations, from the tension between appearance and truth.

Consider, for instance, the greatest of all Wyeth subterfuges. Weymouth’s voice dropped when he remembered the whole affair. “I’m the one who hid them, for 17 years,” he said. “Nobody knew.”

For more than a decade and a half, starting in 1971, Andrew painted a woman without telling his wife. Something about Prussian-born Helga Testorf, who worked as a caretaker for his neighbor Karl Kuerner, captured Andrew’s imagination. And he enlisted Weymouth to help him hide the paintings and drawings of Helga, including many nudes. “We put them in boxes, with my name on ’em,” Weymouth said, and they stashed the crates in a secret place.

They kept up the ruse until 1985, when Andrew fell ill. He feared death, and pulled Frolic Weymouth aside one day. “We’ve got to come clean,” Andrew said. If he died and Betsy found out about the hidden paintings, “She’d be furious.”

The two men gathered the crated Helga pictures — more than 240 in all — and hung them at Andrew’s private gallery at his home. A personal show, for Betsy Wyeth.

Weymouth left the gallery while Betsy viewed the portraits, expecting her to explode in anger. But after about 45 minutes, she told him, “You know, I just love them. They’re absolutely extraordinary. If they’d been bad pictures, I would have killed him.”

As a set, the pictures stand alone in American art: No one has ever studied a single subject with such closeness and duration. When word of the paintings got out, the world crashed into the Wyeths’ lives, lured by the scent of scandal: a naked redhead, deceit, fame. Paintings of the mysterious Helga appeared on the cover of Newsweek and Time. Andrew had, in the meantime, sold all the paintings to a Pennsylvania admirer, who in turn sold them to a Japanese collector for a whopping $40 million-plus. Tourists flocked to the patch of rolling land between Philadelphia and Wilmington, searching for these landscapes untarnished by the passage of years; there’s a timelessness about the Brandywine Valley, even beyond Frolic Weymouth’s tortoise-themed house.