Victoria Wyeth: Andy's girl

Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth
There's a footprint hidden in the blue-black shadows surrounding the bed where Karl Kuerner rests. The World War I veteran (he fought on the German side) lies dying, swaddled in a crisp white sheet in his Pennsylvania farmhouse.

Victoria Wyeth
Victoria Wyeth
The footprint, Victoria Wyeth revealed to the rapt crowd gathered around her, belongs to her grandfather, the artist. Andrew Wyeth, she said with a smile, often painted barefoot, and he idly tossed his sketches and preliminary watercolors on the floor as he worked -- unaware or simply uncaring that those scraps of paper might someday hang in a museum.

"I think it's just adorable," she said. "Can't you just imagine him, working there in his bare feet?"

At the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., Victoria was leading a discussion of her grandfather's work.

A young, slim woman dressed entirely in black -- "I don't do color," she said flatly, although she made an exception on this day for pale pink nail polish -- and with her hair pulled in a tight ponytail, Victoria spoke quickly as she tries to fit as many stories as possible into each 30-minute gallery tour.

As a child, Victoria was often at Andrew Wyeth's knee while he worked, idly passing the time as masterpieces came to life around her. "But when I was a kid, I didn't care," she admitted. "He never made it seem unusual. I figured all grandpas painted."

It was only much later that she realized just how extraordinary her grandfather was.

"Anna Christina"
Anna Christina
Look, she said, at the fine details rendered by the artist's dry-brush strokes, a technique with egg tempera that allowed him to become a master of texture.

"I don't know why someone doesn't do a show just on hair," Victoria said, gesturing at the wiry grey-black strands of frequent model Christina Olson (immortalized most famously in "Christina's World"). "The way this guy does hair is just amazing."

But don't expect her to go into great depth when discussing the symbolism in her Andrew Wyeth's paintings.

"I hate symbolism," she said. "I go with what came out of his mouth." For instance, she said, she asked him about the dead, hanging birds in one piece of his work that have inspired much discussion about the hidden layers of meaning. "'Bah,' he told me. 'They're birds.'"

Victoria laughs at people who call her grandfather's work drab.

"People say there's no color. But look at these berries," she said, stabbing a finger at various paintings on the walls around her. "Look at the clouds. The blond highlights in her hair."

His subjects, too, were very colorful people, she says. "It was very important for my grandfather to paint people as they were," she explains. "These pictures aren't about people with big smiles and teeth. That's not Andy's style. These all are people he thought were interesting and wanted to paint.

"But it's not just the pictures. It's the stories. ... These aren't just people he met at the grocery store. These are people he had a deep, intimate relationship with."

"Roasted Chestnuts"
Roasted Chestnuts
For instance, there's Alan Messersmith in the painting "Roasted Chestnuts," standing long, lean and tattered 'round the edges as he sold his wares along Highway 202. Then there's "Monologue," a painting of a drifter named Willard Snowden who lived for a time in Wyeth's studio. The title, Victoria confided, had nothing to do with the image -- it showed Snowden sitting sideways in a chair, surrounded by shadows -- but rather referenced Snowden's habit of muttering drunkenly to himself while Wyeth painted. Or "Raccoon," in which a chained and starving hunting dog sits woeful but proud of bearing; Wyeth tried to buy the dog from its owner, Victoria said, but the owner refused ... and later shot the dog instead.

Victoria Wyeth has spent more than three decades surrounded by her family's art -- primarily the big three of the family tree: great-grandfather N.C., grandfather Andrew and uncle Jamie.

From 2004 until October of last year, she gave twice-daily tours of the Wyeth galleries at Brandywine, sharing a wealth of stories about her famous ancestors as well as the people and places they immortalized.

Now, she's taking her show on the road.

"I give lectures on my grandfather around the world now ... spreading the gospel of Andrew Wyeth," she explained during a recent telephone interview.

"I'm explaining not just who he was as an artist, but who he was as a person," she said. "Art historians have a very important role in explaining the potential symbolism in his work, but it's also important to explain the personal connections."

Symbolism is a big stumbling point for the Wyeth family, she said. Historians, critics and die-hard fans often see meaning where there is none.

"I've had people walk off my tour, pissed off, because I told them something that didn't agree with something they believed," she said.

"Let me give you an example. He did this picture called 'Willard's Coat.' It depicts an old jacket and an apple on a windowsill. My mother, who is an art historian, insisted that the apple represents my great-grandfather and his death."

"Willard's Coat"
Willard's Coat
The symbolism makes sense, given that N.C. Wyeth tended an apple orchard and his death greatly affected Andrew Wyeth's outlook. But when she asked her grandfather about it, he snorted in disbelief. The truth, he told her, is that one of his models -- Willard Snowden again -- had been living in the studio. When Snowden left, he left the coat and the apple behind. The artist liked the scene and painted it. That's all there was to it.

When her mother heard Wyeth's answer, she replied: "He doesn't even understand the deeper meaning of his work."

"Spoken like a true art historian," Victoria said with a chuckle.

"People can't get past the symbolism," she said, a hint of exasperation creeping into her voice. "But my grandfather never talked about symbolism. I think it's a bunch of horseshit. Please print that."

It's easy for Victoria to see past the facade of the great artist, considering that she grew up in his studio, knew his models well and discussed his work with him at length.

"I'm Andy's only grandchild," she said with some regret, "and unfortunately I don't paint."

The subject came up earlier the day of the interview, Victoria said. "I was with a friend of mine and we were walking around. And I said, 'It's days like these I wish I could paint.'" She sighed. "I guess I never really tried. I'm not sure, but I think I'd know by now if I could."

She has dabbled in photography -- her work has been shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other places -- but, she said, "I really haven't picked up a camera since my grandfather died."

But she does know art. Although she has a master's degree in clinical psychology and has worked in a forensic hospital for the criminally insane, she is steeped in technique enough to have a journeyman's understanding of the mechanics of painting and composition, and she enjoys sharing her insights with anyone with an interest in Wyeth's work.

It also has affected her outlook considerably.

"I can see the world as paintings. I wake up and see a beautiful snowy day, and I see it as a watercolor. Or I see it as a tempera. Having an artistic family has allowed me to see the beauty and tragedy in life. Does that make sense?" She pondered a moment. "It's a shame that all this really crystallized when my grandfather passed away," she added. "He told me that his father's death had a tremendous impact on him, but I didn't really understand it until my own grandfather passed away."

His death on Jan. 16, 2009, impacted his granddaughter's life immeasurably.

"When he died, it just changed things for me," she said. "It's hard to put into words, but it changed the way that I look at the world. I never had lost someone that was that close to me. It was like someone took off my sunglasses. I just saw ... on a deeper level. It enabled me to better understand his pictures and explain them to people. When I give my lectures, I'll be on stage in front of 20 people or 700 people, and I can hear him in my head. It's not like he's telling me what to say; I can remember where I was with him when we spoke about it.

"The Sauna"
The Sauna
"I enjoy lecturing because it's a way to stay close to him."

It also has created for Victoria an amazing connection with Andrew Wyeth's broad base of friends and fans, many of whom stay in touch with her through various means, including a forum devoted to discussing his work at

"The Virgin"
The Virgin
She hates the spread of misinformation about her grandfather and his work, and she uses her lectures to clear them up when she can.

During a recent Brandywine tour, Victoria talked at length about Siri Erickson, one of Wyeth's regular models in the years after Christina Olson and before Helga Testorf. Siri was only 13 when she made the artist's acquaintance, and some critics have questioned his use of someone so young as a nude model.

Indeed, it's easy to see Siri's own thoughts on the matter. In a preliminary sketch for his painting, "The Sauna," Siri sits draped in a towel. She is smiling and relaxed. For the next piece, the towel came down -- and she is visibly less relaxed, hands clenched, a look of terror on her young face.

But Siri's father was a close friend of Andrew Wyeth's, Victoria remarked, and he trusted the painter completely. Still, she added, the father was likely standing right outside that sauna to ensure nothing happened.

In a later nude painting, "The Virgin," the model stands boldly, with confidence. "There's so much I love about his work," Victoria said, drawing the audience's attention away from the girl to point out the tiny details in the texture of the floor.

"Indian Summer"
Indian Summer
Her grandfather liked to paint nudes, Victoria explained, because "clothes and accessories date a picture. This..." -- she swept an arm toward another in the series, "Indian Summer" -- "is timeless."

Unfortunately, she added with a chuckle, Wyeth sometimes defeated his own purpose by adding too much detail. In some Siri paintings, for instance, the time period is indelibly linked to the 1960s by the shape and size of her tan lines.

"It's a shame that people sometimes only can see what's in front of them, what's obvious," Victoria said. "You almost have to look at what's not there."

"North Light"
North Light
She still loves finding hidden secrets in her grandfather's work, like that footprint by a dying Karl Kuerner. Even now, three years after his death, it's not uncommon to find her standing on a sofa in her grandmother's house, studying paintings on the wall with a magnifying glass.

Victoria was fascinated during a Brandywine tour last year when a patron pointed out an architectural detail in "North Light," a painting of N.C.'s studio, that she'd never noticed before. Soon, she and several patrons were studying the painting and comparing the scene to photos of the studio one person had on his camera.

"I believe in my heart that he gave me such a solid foundation in his work," Victoria said. "He didn't only teach me about specific themes, he taught me how to think about his work."

He also had boundless confidence in his granddaughter's abilities.

"He said he would be known as Victoria Wyeth's grandfather," she said. "He had more faith in me than anyone I ever met. Even me. He believed in me more than anyone I ever knew. That's very special.

"That's why I keep doing this," she added, quietly. "I miss him because I miss the way it felt when he held my hand. I miss the way it felt when he ran his hand through my hair. And these people miss the beauty he brought to their homes and their lives through his art. For that reason, to the day I die I'll be doing this. I hope."

[ visit Victoria Wyeth's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

21 January 2012

"Christina's World"

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