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

Weymouth suffers from a bad back, due to years jouncing on horseback and one unfortunate dance move that involved throwing a lady over his shoulder. As we parted ways, I remarked on his crutches. “You don’t see that many polished wood ones,” I said. “They’re beautiful, really.”

Weymouth shrugged. “They’re from the Civil War,” he said.

DURING MUCH OF this spring, anyone who ambled along a certain road near Chadds Ford saw something curious: two silver-haired men sitting in the road, one on a motorcycle and one on a chair, watching the traffic light go from green to red and back again.

At one point a woman walked past, chatting on her phone. Once she thought she was beyond earshot, she told her friend, “I just saw the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. There’s this old guy painting another old guy on a motorcycle. You should see it.”

Later a man walked by. Taken with the skill of the old painter, moved by the artistry, he made an offer for the painting on the spot: “I’ll give you $25,” he said. The old man just smiled and thanked him.

Andrew Wyeth first met Andy Bell many years ago, when Bell was only a little boy. Wyeth spent his summers in Maine, and while he was there, Bell would “exercise” the artist’s many vehicles — cars, motorcycles, snowmobiles and more. “We had a blast running around,” Bell said. He’s a tough-looking guy, with strong hands and a hogshead of a chest, which he typically encases in a black leather biker’s jacket. But his voice is lively and nimble; even at 54, he sounds almost adolescent.

A couple of years ago, while out for a drive, Andrew Wyeth approached a red light where Bell sat on his bike, waiting for the light to change. Something about the moment struck the painter; something plucked the invisible emotional string that vibrates in him.

Since the first drawing of an antelope on a cave wall, people have tried to find the source of that creative vibration, even deifying it as the Muses, but no one has ever quite defined artistic inspiration. Scores of painters pass this same traffic light on their way to this quaint bridge or that dilapidated barn, searching for the tailings of the Wyeth family’s genius. But Andrew’s most recent inspiration — his muse — is a big bow-legged man in a black leather jacket.


Bell faltered. “I … I don’t know,” he said.

What did the painter convey, during all those hours sitting on the road, staring at the back of Bell’s head? What did he see in Bell? What did Bell, as his model, contemplate? “I just pretended I was ridin’ up through the mountains,” he said. “We had a real good time.”

Later, Bell phoned to say he’d been thinking, since we’d talked. “I don’t think I really answered you about working on that painting, on the Harley,” he said. His voice ratcheted up with enthusiasm, like a motorcycle revving away from a corner.

“It was just … awesome,” he said. “It was awesome.”