Bad Behavior Dark Secrets

Andy’s World: The Life of Andrew Wyeth

Andy Wyeth Studio

Friends with Toy Soldiers

If you have ever heard of Andrew Wyeth before it is because you probably have seen Christina’s World. Maybe not in person, but it’s been reproduced so often as an example of great American art. Last week we spoke about Andy’s father, the famed illustrator NC Wyeth. But it was Andy who achieved what his father could not, becoming known as a great “serious” painter.

Andy’s childhood was both charmed and turbulent. Born in 1917 he was a sickly child, kept home and out of school for long stretches of time. With anemia, double hernias, whooping cough and a sinus condition which a doctor treated by pushing wires soaked in medicine painfully up his nose, Andy was more isolated than his other family members. His toys, his fantasies became his world.

When Andy’s older sister Henriette married the artist Peter Hurd, Peter realized that Andy was only semi-literate and took him under his wing. Until then he had lived in his father’s shadow and well-intentioned dictatorship, now he was growing into his own.

But it wasn’t until Andy went to Maine as a young adult that he finally tasted personal and artistic freedom from his father. He made friends with a boy whose family dysfunction fascinated him: an alcoholic father, a hooker sister and a brother who drowned and was found the next spring partially eaten by crabs. Andy was always drawn to painting what others looked away from, to darkness and to madness. His paintings of Maine from this period made up his first one-man show at a gallery in New York City. It sold out on the first day and launched his career.

Andy Wyeth Studio

Who Wears Short Shorts

On his 22nd birthday, back in Maine again, Andy went to visit a friend-of-a-friend. The friend wasn’t home…but his daughter was. Betsy James opened the door in high heels, short shorts and a halter top. Andy was instantly taken. Beautiful now, Betsy had grown up feeling like an outsider too. They understood each other.

Betsy brought him to the Olson house where crippled Christina (of the future Christina’s World) and her brother Al lived to test his character by watching him meet Christina. He passed the test. The Olson’s somewhat sad and dilapidated living conditions didn’t repulse him as they did many people. Instead Andy was on fire with inspiration (Well, he would be later. He was pretty focused on pretty Betsy this first visit).

“It’s the doorway of the sea to me, of mussels and clams and sea monsters and whales,” Andy said of the Olson’s house.

Andy Wyeth Studio

Soon he asked Betsy, just 17, to marry him. She accepted and for a time he stopped painting. All of their time was consumed; walks along the shore, picnics in the blueberry fields, trips to the little Maine islands dotting the coast.

As a loner Andy didn’t know how to handle his dependence on Betsy. Between their sappy love letters there are some which reveal Andy’s darker moods:

“We love each other completely, and, darling, I swear, I’ll really beat you if you ever again doubt my love for you. You have only seen me when I am nice. But when I get mad, watch out. And darling, if you ever again tell me things which you don’t really believe, I will do something you will never forget. We are one from now on.”

While the letter seems threatening Andy never acted on any such feelings as this. Instead they had blazing arguments which while stressful Andy believed kept the edge in their marriage.

Andy and Betsy

Andy and Betsy, source.

Andy Wyeth Studio

The photo of the woman on the wall, unframed, is Betsy. The man on the horse is his father NC. The professional head shot to the right of Betsy is Andy’s son, Jamie.

As the wedding neared, Andy’s father, NC, attempted to bribe Andy not to marry promising to build him a studio and support him financially. Andy refused and the wedding went ahead in Betsy’s childhood home. She wore gardenias in her hair, ferns and blossoms flowed over the mantlepiece and the groom and his father cried when Betsy and Andy were pronounced man and wife, their bond changed forever. “I’m standing there and the bride isn’t being kissed by her husband. I thought, My God, the reverend is going to think he’s in love with his father, not me,” Betsy said. They moved into the one-room schoolhouse NC had bought and converted just down the lane from the family home to keep his children close.

In December of 1940 Betsey fell pregnant and Andy reacted bitterly. Pregnancy and fatherhood were another distraction from painting, another confinement on his life as an artist. He told her he was relieved when she miscarried. Three years later she was pregnant again. This time it would be a (healthy) baby boy named Nicholas.

Andy kept his distance from Betsy as soon as the baby began to show and even after the baby arrived. He would continue painting, oblivious to baby Nicky’s screams upstairs.

Andy Wyeth Studio

One Life Ends, Another Begins

In 1945 Andy and the Wyeth family lost their guiding light, their patriarch: NC. An unscheduled mail train from Philly came barreling down the tracks slamming into NC’s car and dragging it along. The engineer later said thought the man in the car threw his hands up in shock at the train coming. NC and his grandson (Andy’s nephew) were instantly killed.

Andy returned to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania from Maine grief stricken. He went immediately to the Quaker Meeting House to see the open casket. Beneath the caskets on the oak floor was an old stain, brown now, from the blood of Hessian soldier amputations in the makeshift hospital during the Battle of the Brandywine.

That familiar emotion which often steered his life bubbled up once again inside him: anger. He had never gotten around to painting his father. To compound matters the morning of the funeral Betsy realized she was pregnant again. Once again Andy was furious. Another child trapped him into domesticity even further. Believing that NC’s love and dedication to his children drained his talent, Andy left Betsy to endure a lonely pregnancy. A boy, James (Jamie) was born in July of 1946.

In 1948 after Christina’s World and Karl sold Andy’s star was on the rise. When Winston Churchill stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston he requested Andy’s watercolors to be hung in his room. Now Andy was a household name in America.

Andy Wyeth Studio

Maga’s Daughter by Andy hanging in the museum now, the frame’s mat is beautifully embroidered.

While public recognition grew, Andy worked hard at not letting it go to his head. Not every brush stroke should be deemed special. Of all his paintings he owned only one, Maga’s Daughter, a portrait of Betsy (it’s in the Brandywine River Museum now).

In the fall of 1950 Andy  and Betsy visited a friend at her camp in Maine. Their friend, Dr. Margaret Handy, found blood on on Andy’s pillow after the first night. Betsy and Andy told her this was common and they weren’t overly worried. Margaret insisted they see a specialist for Andy. He had bronchiectasis, a disease of the bronchial tubes that is fatal is left untreated.

Surgery would be required. Andy insisted on the operation in Wilmington with a less experienced doctor rather than Philadelphia with its top specialist because they were less convenient to him. During surgery they split his chest open from top to bottom to remove part of the lung. His heart began to fail. The next day he almost died again, hemorrhaging in his lung as blood poured from his mouth. Luckily, Margaret had sent a friend to check on Andy, an ENT specialist, who was able to immediately remedy the deadly situation.

After facing death, Andy would lose most of his old friends in Maine in the next 15 years to various illnesses. It was the severing of his old life in Maine. Now he was ready to paint something new. During their first years of marriage Andy had quickly done a few pencil nudes of Betsy and one of a neighbor. He was ready to revisit the idea.

Andy Wyeth Studio

In the Nude

Then in 1967 while Betsy and Andy were out scouting old structures back home in Chadds Ford a petite, curvy 13-year old blond girl appeared out of a shed in a bikini stroking a black cat. Andy introduced himself then ran to the car for his art supplies. Over the next year Andy used Siri for a few pieces but always modestly covered enough. Betsy told him to be more daring but Andy resisted at first, citing her young age. Betsy insisted.

The next day, Andy requested Siri ask her parents’ permission to draw her nude. As she went off to ask her mother Andy waited for an angry mother with a shotgun to appear, but it was Siri who returned and simply said: “Fine.”

As Andy began completing full nudes of Siri, ones encouraged by Betsy, he decided to show her the work. Instead of the art editor that Betsy usually was, it was the wife who viewed these nude paintings. She was not happy and to add insult to injury she now had to deal with town gossip: Andy was corrupting a minor.

Andy Wyeth Studio

Betsy, desperate to escape the sometimes suffocating Wyeth clan found an old gristmill further from the schoolhouse but still on the Brandywine River. She bought the place while Andy, detestful of fixing anything decaying, worked on picture after picture of the house in its original state before Betsy could get her hands on redecorating it. Restoring old property and designing new spaces became Betsy’s art form, her creative expression and her new purpose.

After their move Andy used their old home as his studio and Jamie, their son moved in. Now Betsy felt like the studio was Andy’s private domain and she rarely visited. Andy himself felt a bit abandoned, he had been forcibly removed from the ease of being near his easel whenever he wanted to paint.

Andy Wyeth Studio

Secret Paintings

Now that the studio was separate Andy could have more secrets. He continued to paint Siri, usually nude (though because she was so young he withheld them until she was 19). As Siri grew older and busy with her own pursuits Andy began developing another model, Helga Testorf. A German woman of 30 who worked for the Kuerners on their farm, his old painting haunt.

In 1971 Siri had a boyfriend who forbade her from posing nude so Andy moved on to using Helga more…but Betsy was still focused on Siri. She decided to keep Siri close and hired her as a live-in maid. Siri agreed to pose for Andy again. The fights between the married couple continued.

While Betsy’s eyes were watching Siri, Andy was already painting Helga. He decided to keep Helga a secret from his wife and hid most of the paintings of her. In 1987 the secret collection was revealed at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and then traveled to six other major museums in America. They were poorly received in the art world and some critics suggested that it was a publicity stunt by Andy and Betsy, 15 years of hidden paintings from his wife suddenly on display to millions. It was no stunt though.

Andy Wyeth Studio

The 15 years spent painting Helga required deep secrecy. Andy exhausted himself painting extra pieces in the evening so that it would still look like he was working without having to show his wife the nudes. But he refused to paint without inspiration and so he began to quietly slip in pictures of Helga, clothed and painted as if she were in Maine so that Betsy would think this was a Maine woman, far away from their home.

The challenge was convincing Betsy that these were different woman. Betsy dutifully noted the (fabricated) names of the models in her catalog of his work, though most of them were really of Helga. He once even repainted Helga as a young black woman to keep the secret. Betsy knew something was going on with her husband but he was the beloved artist, no one would betray his secrecy. She was kept in the dark.

Helga also felt trapped. The two Wyeths (Andy’s sister Carolyn who Helga now worked for as a maid and Andy) dominated her and her time. She began to suffer under their long hours and all the secrecy. In 1983 Helga was obviously suffering from a severe depression. They placed her in a psychiatric unit in a Philadelphia hospital. A month later she was released. Believing that nothing had ever been wrong with her, Helga instead thought that she had been the victim of people jealous of her relationship with the Wyeths. She became reclusive and refused to take any medications.

“It’s a great tragedy,” Andy said. “I guess you have to wonder if you’re responsible. Well, I don’t believe that I am. Unconsciously, we artists do a devastating thing. You’re really raising hell with models mentally and emotionally. I don’t think I caused Helga’s problems, but I didn’t help much.”

This pain and madness was what gave Andy’s paintings such a layered deep meaning. It was what set him apart but it also weighed on him.

“What is there about this valley? Every damn person I paint goes mentally off. Allan Lynch in Winter 1946 and Young America killed himself. Allan Messersmith, the Roasted Chestnuts boy. Bill Loper, the man with the hook, went mad. James Loper. Anna Kuerner*. Helga’s father committed suicide. Now she’s terribly supersensitive. It’s a drama that’s really shaken me.”

*We’ll talk about her later guys!

Years later Betsy accepted Helga, who had sufficiently recovered mentally, and she became Andy’s caretaker as he aged. He died in his sleep in January 2009 at the age of 91. He was buried in Maine where Betsy still lives near her son Jamie.

Andy Wyeth Studio

{Andy’s candid granddaughter gave an interview about “Growing Up Wyeth” last year – she is a forensic psychologist specializing in sex offenders, but also gives tours at the Wyeth museums; you can see it here}.

Sources: “Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life” by Richard Merryman, my tour guide at Andrew Wyeth’s former studio at the Brandywine River Museum.