It’s surprising that there aren’t more. There are just twenty pictures, mostly studies, which Andrew Wyeth drew or painted of his wife Betsy, on display at the Brandywine River Museum of Art following Mrs. Wyeth’s death at ninety-eight this spring. Most shocking, she is absent emotionally, and sometimes physically, from almost every one of them. What made Andrew so unwilling to draw his wife?
Suddenly you understand just a little bit more about those Helga pictures: about 250 strong, kept hidden away for so long from Betsy’s refined, calculating control. That is not the proper way to speak of Mrs. Wyeth, doyenne that she is. But it is the unavoidable impression one gets from viewing “Betsy James Wyeth: A Tribute,” which runs through January 10, 2021, at the Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, museum so closely identified with the family. Of the twenty drawings, watercolors, and two or three paintings of the late Betsy Wyeth, she is shown in detail in only one. And this is at a museum closely related to this fascinating family, stocked with a load of Wyeth family art production from three generations. Betsy herself played a big role in the museum’s creation.
Let’s take a look. Untitled, a watercolor of twenty-year-old Betsy lying in bed reading, was done in 1942, two years after they married. It’s a good start: the little picture glows with color. Andrew was known early in his career for his colors, although they seemed to drop off his palette one by one as the years went by. But this one burns with reds, browns, and some paler blues and greens. Betsy herself is a small form in the bed. It could have been anyone.
Corn Tassels (version two of that title), a 1953 watercolor, gives us Andrew’s phenomenal freedom of movement in a handful of browning corn-plant fronds draped loosely across the paper. It took a long period of looking before I even noticed the figure half-concealed in the dark below the plants, a figure that was evidently Betsy, her back to the viewer.
French Twist also shows her with back to viewer. She doesn’t even appear in A Feather in Her Cap, a 1987 watercolor the curator describes as a “symbolic portrait” focused on a hat in the foreground. Nor does she enter Monday Morning, a 1955 tempera still life that includes only her knitting bag.
Two studies for Country (1965) depict Betsy gazing out a window with all the expression of the Sphinx. In 1968’s Outpost, a tempera-on-panel painting, Betsy floats above a snowy landscape. Her coat is shown clearly, but her face is little more than a blur. A tall wooden post has detail, a stone wall has detail, but Betsy is rendered vaguely and seems to be visiting from another world.
In only one painting in this exhibition, the well-known Maga’s Daughter, a tempera from 1966, does Betsy appear clearly and candidly. We see a woman of forty-four, looking off at an angle with a cool, composed, detached expression and a slightly amused look in her eyes. She is not easy to read. A little hard around the mouth, she has a strange hairline augmented by the quirky bonnet, as flat as Buster Keaton’s.
This exhibition, a modest salute to Betsy, is mounted in one of the third-floor galleries that holds many different Wyeth family members’ art, especially that of Andrew’s sisters. There are a few of Andrew’s other portraits—particularly one of the young girl Siri, a frequent model—that remind us how much more Betsy there could have been. Maybe Betsy hated sitting for her husband. Maybe she disliked being painted at all. In its curious way, the show is a remarkable tribute to a woman so powerful that her husband seems to have avoided painting her.
The Wyeths, rivaled only by the Peales as a family of talented American artists, had more than their share of passions, conflicts, secrets, and tragedies. Andrew learned much of his art from his powerfully over-involved father, N.C. He escaped his father’s grip with the help of Betsy, who was always standoffish toward N.C., but then he found he needed to escape Betsy herself. Helga was that escape, but there is no sign of Andrew’s Teutonic muse here, just these carefully limited views of wife Betsy, the cataloguer, the editor, the painting namer, and the “director,” as she called herself.