Wyeth, then and now

— With the passing of Betsy Wyeth this past April, the memories of my first experience with the art of Andrew Wyeth came bubbling to the surface.

RJ Heller,photo 1984

I remember driving a winding road up a hill. The blue sky opened with a Cheshire-like grin seemingly to say, “Just wait and see.” At the end of the road I faced an edifice— a gray weathered box of windows, doors, and chimneys— with a ladder splayed prone on the roof.  Shadows meandered around corners, peeked from eaves, and sunlight shimmered across panes of glass. On each windowsill were vibrant red geraniums, a breath of life inside a house that longed for life’s return. It was the Olson house in Cushing, Maine. The place I met Andrew Wyeth.


This Downeast place is saturated with talent. Artists work in paint, clay, textiles, pixels and words. They work in studios of wood and stone, in spare bedrooms, basements, attics and alcoves, or sometimes “en plein air”. Wherever they and their tools fit the artist knows that purpose will arrive, sit for a bit, and then something wonderful will bloom.

It was that way for Wyeth when he was painting in an upstairs bedroom at the Olson house. He looked out the window one summer afternoon and saw Christina wearing a pink summer dress, sitting in the grass, looking as if she was a chess piece waiting to be moved. And, as some may know, Christina’s World is what Wyeth saw and would paint.

Christina’s World, 1948-Andrew Wyeth, Museum of Modern Art

I found art late in life. In my early school days, I struggled in art class and, quite frankly, didn’t see the point. Today, I have righted that wrong and realize art makes all the difference in the world.

A college class is where I first caught sight of Wyeth. It was a single painting among a bunch of others by artists I cared nothing about. When it appeared on the screen, it was as if the likes of a 19th century English schoolteacher grabbed me by the collar and loudly bellowed, “Snap lively there, what do you think you’re doing, sleeping?” I wasn’t sleeping, but it felt like I had just awakened after having been plunged into an icy bath. And then it happened, it was as if someone whispered in my ear, “Isn’t it wonderful, just look at it.”

It’s just a painting I would say, but this one was not. Something spoke to me at that very moment. It’s a rare feeling, but one I have experienced before. No matter the circumstance, or from where or how it comes —art, song, literature or even hearing a child’s laugh— when it happens, it’s eternal. The painting was Wind from the Sea by Andrew Wyeth.

Wind from the Sea, 1947-Andrew Wyeth, National Gallery of Art

From then on I was a student of Wyeth, and sought to learn and see more of his work. It was quite easy to do. Chadd’s Ford, just minutes from the college I attended, was where Wyeth lived and worked; when he was not there, he was in his other place, Maine. Wyeth inhabited two worlds, that of Pennsylvania and Maine; bookends placed down by a father’s hands many years before, and where Andrew and his son, Jamie, would follow. Between those bookends are wondrous works of art, a plethora of creative moments that bloomed, captured on canvas.

As I walked the Olson grounds, five years removed from that freshman year art class and well before a museum would own and tend to it, I could see vestiges of Christina and her brother, Alvaro. I could see Wyeth paintings and drawings everywhere and feel its’ essence as a place and the impact it had on a young artist. Over 300 works by Wyeth came from this place. Wyeth is this place, I thought.

Evening at Kuerners, 1970-Andrew Wyeth, private collection

Since then, I have been back to the Olson house numerous times. I have also walked the Pennsylvania field up to the Kuerner farmhouse where Wyeth would spend his days painting all that was there, just as he did in Maine. The mill, spring barn and Kuerner’s kitchen are now famous. Everywhere there is a Wyeth painting. When you are there, so is Wyeth, nudging you, maybe even tugging at your sleeve saying, “Isn’t it wonderful, just look at it.” I never met Wyeth in the physical sense, but I did share time with him and know him through his work.

At the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland — known for all things Wyeth — there was a recent exhibition of works, which Wyeth completed before his death in 2009. The show included his very last painting, named by his wife, Betsy, just as all of Wyeth’s paintings have been ever since the two met in the 40s, this one, too, called to me.

Entering the gallery, it felt like I was back at college, only older, a few more pounds, certainly wiser, and seeing again, Wyeth for the very first time.  I reminded myself in that moment that life is better when you take time to see it, feel it, and engage it. That’s what happened the first time and it’s because of that, I continued to do so now as I stepped in front of this painting.

Goodbye, My Love 2008 -Andrew Wyeth, Farnsworth Art Museum

It was just like “Andy”, as his friends and family knew him, to capture within this painting, vestiges of a past and the world he inhabited behind egg-washed paint. In all of Wyeth’s paintings the strokes are his breath, the paint and color his emotion. This painting of a white house with many windows, set upon a slight hill, tide coming in as a small sloop heads out, pushed by a current of air, all of it— the boat, the house and, in a sense, life — moves quickly past, waves its collective hand and quietly whispers, Goodbye, My Love.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.