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

ON THE DAY N.C. Wyeth died, Andrew and Betsy realized she was pregnant with Jamie.

Their first son, Nicholas, had never felt an inclination to paint, but Jamie could think of nothing else. He drew compulsively as a child, with no discipline but with such talent that his mother feared he would squander it. When he was about eight, she pulled his drawings from drawers and hiding places around the house — hundreds of drawings — and laid them out before him. “Finish them,” she said. “All of them.”

Jamie dropped out of school as an adolescent and studied art under his aunt Carolyn at his grandfather’s studio, where he spent two years drawing cubes and spheres. As Jamie labored among N.C.’s props and costumes, his work absorbed something of his grandfather’s spirit. While Andrew Wyeth most resembled his father’s teacher, Howard Pyle, Jamie most resembled his father’s teacher, N.C. Wyeth. Instead of Andrew’s near-monocromatic tempera paintings, Jamie painted bold oils, full of dash and vigor. And instead of Andrew’s eye for quiet and unexpected moments, Jamie had an eye for more overt absurdity.

Lincoln Kirstein, a New York writer, and art connoisseur and a Wyeth family friend, called Jamie “one of the strangest people I’ve ever known.”

During the Vietnam War, the Delaware Air National Guard asked Jamie to paint something, and he obliged with a mural on parachute silk of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They’re naked, and seem so startled by the appearance of an Air Guard C-97 Stratofreighter on the horizon that Eve has dropped the infamous apple. It’s a winsome scene, and the officers and pilots of the Air Guard now walk past it daily. What they might not notice is a subliminal detail: Hidden in the clouds beneath the belly of the Stratofreighter, leering at the original Man and Woman, there’s a vast and terrible skull. It’s almost invisible. The painter calls it “Airman Death.”

After John F. Kennedy died, when Jamie was just a teenager, the Kennedy family asked him to do a posthumous portrait of the president. Instead of painting a moment of triumph, he painted Kennedy looking pensive, perhaps thinking of Cuban missiles. “One eye is sort of off, in the Kennedy way,” Jamie said. Bobby hated it, but Jackie, who felt it was honest, hung it.

As a young man, in the midst of what the admiring public considered an idyllic family life, Jamie headed for New York. This flew against everything Andrew believed in; he felt that travel, worldliness and sophistication dulled an artist’s sensitivity to his surroundings. And Jamie didn’t just move to Manhattan; he took up friendship with the pope of pop art, the man who celebrated superficiality: Andy Warhol. They worked together in Warhol’s famous Factory, each undertaking a portrait of the other.

The inhabitants of the New York art scene loved it. And it must have seemed like a good idea to Warhol, at the time. Quirky. Ironic. Warhol collected people like figurines, and the more outlandish, the better: drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites. In Jamie he found the perfect outsider: a handsome American boy who grew up in a mill house in rural Pennsylvania.