Brandywine Creek meanders through one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Flowing past the rural town of Chadds Ford, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, the stream curves through woods, meadows, hills and farms, impossibly green in summer and blindingly white in winter.
This land is also chock-a-block with American history. It was the home of the Lenni Lenape for centuries until they were pushed out by colonists. In 1777, during the Revolutionary War, insurgent Americans lost the Battle of Brandywine to the British. Half a century later, in the long run-up to the Civil War, Chadds Ford Quakers sheltered enslaved people fleeing the slave state of Delaware.
Chadds Ford has also famously nurtured an extended family of artists: The Wyeths. Proud of their descent from an English colonist in 1645, the talented Wyeths have thrived in this gorgeous landscape, steeped in history, for more than 100 years.
N.C. Wyeth, the founding father of this art dynasty, settled in Chadds Ford in the early 1900s. He and his wife, Carolyn Bockius, had five children. Three growing up in this creative household became painters: Andrew Wyeth, who loved to roam in the countryside, and two of his sisters, Henriette and Carolyn. Another sister, Ann McCoy, became a composer and brother Nathanial became an engineer. Andrew's son Jamie also became a renowned painter.
The Tucson Museum of Art has just opened a major exhibition, The Wyeths: Three Generations, featuring more than 60 paintings made by the three best-known Wyeths: N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), and Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946).
The show also features five works by Henriette, among them an evocative still life and an arresting portrait of her son Peter. As an artist with a national reputation, she was commissioned to paint the official White House portrait of Pat Nixon.
All the works in the show are realist, which some critics find old-fashioned and conservative. There's more than one painting of a Revolutionary War, no doubt inspired by that battle up the creek from the Wyeth house. Elsewhere are images of heroic WWII soldiers.
Still, the three featured artists are mostly captivated by the beauties of nature, not just in Chadds Ford, but in coastal Maine as well, where all three generations spent their summers. Andrew in particular seems to have drawn or painted every hill and house along the Brandywine. In the show, there's an exquisite pen and ink drawing of the family home in Chadds Ford that he made when he was only 16.
All three were prodigiously talented and all succeeded at an early age. Andrew sold out an entire gallery of watercolors in New York when he hit 20; a few decades later, his son, Jamie, had a solo New York show at the same magic age. Likewise, Andrew's father, N.C., scored his first cover on the prestigious Saturday Evening Post magazine when he was 20.
N.C. was a successful illustrator of adventure books in the early decades of the 20th century, a time when beautifully illustrated books were the norm. N.C. had moved down from Massachusetts to study illustration with Howard Pyle in Wilmington, not far from where he would settle in Chadds Ford.
N.C. was not always happy to be doing commercial art, but the paintings on view are a delight, a robust collection of knights and fishermen and wrestlers. The paintings were to be illustrations on the cover and inside of books; the images were transformed via metal plates and printed onto books. were transformed via metal plates and printed onto books.
For the cover of "Rip Van Winkle," in a 1921 edition of the tale by Washington Irving, N.C. painted the young Rip hiking up the Catskill Mountains in company with a strange little bearded man. The sky is a bright yellow and the mountain a rich blue but the darkening trees suggest an ominous outcome—Rip's 20-year sleep. As a bonus, the exhibition has a copy of the beautiful book.
N.C. tried out impressionism in an untitled landscape in 1923, but his best work here may be "A Young Maine Fisherman" from 1933. A realist but almost romantic painting, it's a large oil canvas that pictures the steady fisherman with his hand on the helm, his eyes on the water. In the background, billowing white clouds float over the blue sea.
Andrew loved many of the same things his father did—sky, hills, water, human figures—and he learned much from his father. But the son had a different aesthetic. He didn't use the thick oil paints of his father and he only rarely painted the bright colors that N.C. relished. Instead, he used egg tempera, watercolors and drybrush to make muted paintings that are contemplative rather than boisterous.
In the 13 works by Andrew Wyeth in the show, we see birds struggling to fly on the windswept Maine coast, with grays and muted greens the only colors; a gray windowpane opening out to trees in the dim colors of late fall; and in a faint pencil sketch, a barely seen native man peering into a house.
His portraits are equally elusive. A fine picture of a Maine woman, The Rebel, 1977, is a bit more colorful, catching her short blonde hair, blue turtleneck, and the rays of the sun. But this sturdy woman remains an enigma, not unlike the woman in Andrew's most famous painting, Christina's World, 1948 (not in this show). That woman, unable to use her legs, crawls up a hilly meadow, pushing her body with her arms.
A later painting, On the Edge, 2001, is similarly mysterious. A woman stands on a big boulder looking out to sea. We can't see her face. All we can see are lights and shadows, the flat ocean, and the overwhelming diagonal of the massive rock. Andrew Wyeth once said that all his works are abstractions. Looking at these works, I think I finally know what he meant.
Jamie Wyeth, still working at 74, may be the bridge between the art of his father and his grandfather. He uses all kinds of media, and he doesn't hesitate to use brilliant color. Best known perhaps for his thoughtful portrait of President John F. Kennedy, painted posthumously (not in this show), Jamie has painted everything from a solemn tribute to the first responders of 9/11 to a humorous self-portrait with a pumpkin head.
Going back to the future, he's still painting Wyeth signature subjects: old barns, harbors, gulls and the sea.
Three Wyeths: Three Generations
Through May 28
Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.
Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors should reserve a time slot for their visit in advance, via the museum's webpage. Masks and social distancing are required.
$12 adults; $10 seniors 65 and up; $7 college students and teens ages 13 to 17; free to children 12 and under, members, veterans and active military.
Extra: Curator Christine Brindza will give a free Zoom talk, Spotlight on N.C. Wyeth, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4. Register at www.tucsonmuseumofart.org/event/curator-talk-spotlight-on-n-c-wyeth/