Skip to content
On this stellar spring day, the emerald slope above the rail tracks is a bovine fantasy of grasses nurtured by nitrogenated soil - the lazy kind of place where you might nap or linger over some sunny novel. But for artist Andrew Wyeth, the hill of the Kuerner farmhouse prompts the stark memory of the tragedy that, he has said, made him an artist.
A mere glance away lies the bend where his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, died with Andrew's nephew in an auto-train crash 60-plus years ago. This seemingly unremarkable bump of earth is the scene for two of Wyeth's best-known paintings, "Winter 1946" and "Snow Hill." Each is linked to death.
Both paintings are part of the exhibition, "Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic," on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July 16. The show contains about 100 tempera paintings, watercolors and drawings by the 88-year-old artist. Though some of Wyeth's most famous works hang elsewhere - "Christina's World" is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and most of the paintings in his gossip-provoking Helga series recently were on display at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Fla. - the Philadelphia exhibition offers an overview of Wyeth's gift for detail and penchant for portraying haunting truths through seemingly simple scenes of countryside and everyday people. Since opening March 29, the retrospective has drawn about 50,000.
For a more intimate glimpse of Wyeth's world, head 45 minutes southwest to Chadds Ford and the Brandywine Valley, where Wyeth grew up and continues to live in fall and winter.
"People ask me all the time, 'Is he dead?' " says Victoria Browning Wyeth, the artist's 27-year-old granddaughter, leading a tour at the Brandywine River Museum, repository for many Wyeth family artworks.
"Andrew Wyeth is not dead. I just left him at lunch." Through July 16, the exhibition "Andrew Wyeth: Master Drawings from the Artist's Collection" at the Brandywine museum showcases studies for many of the works in the Philadelphia show.
Vic - that's what her grandfather calls her - brings her family alive, sketching the lineage: late great-grandfather N.C., grandfather "Andy," grandmother Betsy, uncle Jamie, also a well-known artist. She drops in a few family anecdotes - that her aunt Carolyn, also an artist, loved animals more than dogs, and was such a character that her family sent her ashes up in a firecracker - and tells enthralling back stories to Andrew Wyeth paintings such as "Raccoon," whose abusive owner became so jealous of the relationship between painter and dog that he killed the beast.
But the art takes prominence, and this only Wyeth grandchild is fiercely protective of her grandfather's artistic reputation.
She highlights the play of light and shadow in his temperas, the fluidity of his water colors, the intricate pencil drawings of details or people that may evaporate and never appear in a final work - a denial of critics who complain that Andrew Wyeth's art is too photographic. And as for the predominance of somber tones, "Andy paints in Chadds Ford mostly in the fall and winter, when it's mostly dark and dreary." The family summers in Maine, and paintings created there bear a touch more color.
Whether in Pennsylvania or Maine, Wyeth "paints his life," says Victoria. The people in his paintings are his neighbors - though often, the subjects are conspicuously absent, as in "Brown Swiss," named for the cows at the nearby Kuerner farm that don't appear in the scene. The Kuerners - Karl and Anna, now dead - or their farm appear in nearly 1,000 works. Neighbor Alan Messersmith appears in paintings spanning from his boyhood to old age. Wyeth's nudes of neighbor Helga Testorf, whom he secretly painted for 15 years in the 1960s and '70s, caused a huge furor in the 1980s.
Slipping into a Wyeth scene is as easy as stopping in at Hank's restaurant on U.S. 1 for meat loaf, where you may run into Messersmith, or even Wyeth himself. Unlike in the paintings, though, this Brandywine countryside is dotted with phone poles, electric lines and other detritus of modern life.
For a deeper view, catch a Brandywine River Museum tour to the nearby house where N.C. Wyeth and his wife, Carolyn, raised five children, including baby Andrew, or to the farm owned by the Kuerners, whose survivors recently donated the farm to the museum.
At the N.C. Wyeth studio, visitors can see rifles, saddles, skillets and other props he used in creating his grand colorful illustrations for adventures including James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of Mohicans" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" and "Treasure Island." His studio - with a huge Palladian window overlooking fields and his home - is much as it was on the day he died, just shy of his 63rd birthday.
"His confidence waned late in life," says museum spokesman Halsey Spruance, and Wyeth became despondent because critics overlooked his artwork beyond the book illustrations.
N.C. Wyeth's death is clouded with speculation that he may have committed suicide.
The day after the accident, his family marked his palette with the words, "Do not use," - still visible in his studio.
The snug Kuerner Farm is a 3-D postcard: A horse and few sheep graze near the red wooden barn, just a few feet from the white wooden house, and Sophie the gargantuan calico cat lolls nearby. But it was its emotional importance to Andrew Wyeth - Karl Kuerner served as something of a father figure after N.C. Wyeth's death - that has brought it so often into his work.
Visitors step into the kitchen - the kitchen formed the poignant framework for the painting "Groundhog Day" - and cross the grounds.
Karl Kuerner Jr. is here this day, a septuagenarian fiddling with his tractor, talking about sewing 30-plus acres of hay and showing a visitor the new rubber shoes that his daughter-in-law is putting on her horse.
Inside the barn lies the stone tub used to cool milk that creates the scene for Wyeth's "Spring Fed." The stone slab recalled for him Robin Hood, one of the heroes of his father's illustrating career; the bucket above was Robin Hood's helmet.
As a casual visitor, you can be forgiven for missing the connection. But there's no mistaking that in this corner of the world, you're in Wyeth Country.