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

A MILE BEYOND the skull-and-bones sign — farther down the private drive — lies one of the Wyeth family farms. It’s a compound of white colonial buildings that speaks of old money and, in the case of the Wyeths, old talent.

“This is for the Kennedys,” Jamie said as he strode across the compound. He carried a painting of seagulls under one arm. It was, more specifically, for Teddy Kennedy, whom doctors had diagnosed with brain cancer earlier that day. Decades ago, Jamie explained, when Teddy’s son lost a leg to cancer, Jamie sent Teddy Jr. a painting. Now he intended to repeat the gesture for the father. He paused and held the painting at arm’s length, assessing it. Then he nodded and burst away again, walking at his characteristic fast clip.

He wore what appeared to be a century-old painter’s outfit, with a long jacket over a vest and knee-length knickerbockers with hosiery. The second button on his vest was, as always, red. “I like a red button,” he said. Two of his dogs, Wiley and Voler, followed.

We entered a small gallery that overlooks the property, where Jamie again examined the seagull painting, this time under artificial light. “Yes … ” he murmured. “Yes … ” Satisfied with the painting, he sat for a while, and we talked — about his family and its history, about the art, about seagulls and ravens, about the Wyeths’ near-compulsive themes of loneliness and death —

“Oh no!” he said. He looked at his watch and leapt to his feet. “How long have we been up here? Got to go … ” He flung open a door and sprang outside, leaving it open. Jamie turned 62 in July, but he looks half that, and moves with the speed and suddenness of a teenager. “We’ll take the truck,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Get in.”

He cranked his green 1946 Chevrolet pickup, and waved Wiley and Voler onto the bench seat. “Get in!” he shouted. “Just shove in. They’ll sit in your lap.”

Over the noise of the motor, he shouted details of our destination. Something about a local fellow who jaunts around Chadds Ford in a horse carriage. Meanwhile we tore down the long drive, careening as Jamie wrestled the truck’s heavy steering wheel. He laughed about the carriage fellow: “Yeah, he’s a real character.”

Jamie’s elbows stuck out sideways, and the dogs sat laughing in my lap, sending great plumes of white hair onto our clothes. I tried to brush it away, to no avail. “Where is it we’re going again?”

“A funeral,” he shouted.