Betsy Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s Widow and Collaborator, Dies at 98
Betsy Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s Widow and Collaborator, Dies at 98
Betsy James Wyeth, the indomitable widow, collaborator and muse of the painter Andrew Wyeth, died on April 21 at her home in Chadds Ford, Pa. She was 98.
She had been in declining health for years, said her son Jamie Wyeth.
The couple met in 1939 in Cushing, Maine, when she was 17 and he was 22. As the oft-told story goes, Ms. Wyeth’s father invited the handsome young painter to meet his three daughters.
He was taken with Betsy, the youngest, and she with him, and she tested her new beau by inviting him to meet the Olsons, a brother and sister who lived in a squalid but atmospheric farmhouse.
Christina Olson was paralyzed from the waist down, and it was Ms. Wyeth’s intention to see if Mr. Wyeth would be shocked by the Olson’s grim existence. As he said afterward, he was too focused on his future wife to pay much attention.
Years later, of course, as he observed Ms. Olson crawl across the field to her house — a proud woman, she disdained the assistance of a wheelchair — he was moved enough to paint what would become one of the most famous images in the world, “Christina’s World.” (Mr. Wyeth would return to the house, and Ms. Olson, over and over again in his work.) In what would become a lifelong practice, it was Ms. Wyeth who named the painting.
“That was her life’s work,” Jamie Wyeth, who is also an artist, said of his mother. “My father and his work and giving him the freedom to paint. She was my father’s severest critic. Mine, too.”
“She was an incredible editor and would always tell him to take things out of paintings,” he continued. “My father liked to say that ‘Christina’s World’ would be better without the figure in it. But I think that idea came from her. I always felt her signature should be alongside his.”
Ms. Wyeth would go on to manage the business of Wyeth World, as Joyce Stoner, the painter’s conservator and a professor of art conservation at the University of Delaware, put it, negotiating his commissions, organizing shows and maintaining his catalog raisonné. She liked to explain her role as that of a film director. She told Richard Meryman, Mr. Wyeth’s biographer: “It’s like I’m a director and I had the greatest actor in the world. I mean, what’s a director without an actor? So my role is unimportant.”
As Mr. Meryman wrote, Mr. Wyeth welcomed his wife’s oversight even as he chafed against it. “She’s made me into a painter I would not have been otherwise,” he said. “She didn’t paint the pictures. She didn’t get the ideas. But she made me see more clearly what I wanted.”
Later on, he said, “it became hard to take.” As he told Dr. Stoner, and others, “She rules me with a steel arm.”
Betsy Merle James was born on Sept. 26, 1921, in East Aurora, N.Y. Her mother, Elizabeth Browning, studied animal husbandry at Cornell, and taught high school Latin. Her father, Merle Davis James, was an artist and printer.
She attended Colby Junior College in New Hampshire (now Colby-Sawyer College) for a year because she wanted to ski, and had planned to transfer to the University of Chicago to study archaeology when she was introduced to Mr. Wyeth. He proposed within a week of their meeting, and they married in 1940.
They settled in Chadds Ford, Pa., where Mr. Wyeth had grown up, renting an old schoolhouse from his domineering father, the illustrator N.C. Wyeth, with whom Ms. Wyeth had a contentious, challenging relationship.
The elder Wyeth was jealous of her influence on his son, and also, perhaps, of her role in elevating Andrew Wyeth’s fame, because very quickly, Andrew would become more well-known than his father.
Yet long after N.C. Wyeth’s death in 1945, Ms. Wyeth collected his letters into a book, “The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945.” It was a gesture that was both a gift to her husband and an olive branch to his dead father, said Mary Landa, manager of the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection.
When a 19th century grist mill was threatened by developers, Ms. Wyeth encouraged a neighbor, George Weymouth, who was a founder of the Brandywine Conservancy, the area’s land trust, to buy it and turn it into a museum. “If you build it,” she said, “we’ll put the pictures in it.”
Mr. Weymouth liked to say of Ms. Wyeth, “She had the tact of a general and the grace of a queen.”
In 1985, Mr. Wyeth revealed a collection of paintings and drawings of Helga Testorf, the Prussian born nurse of a neighbor, he had been making in secret for almost 15 years.
What followed was a conflagration of publicity — with Helga covers on Time magazine and Newsweek, a show at the National Gallery — and then an equally fiery backlash when a collector bought, and then sold, all 240 works to a Japanese buyer for many multiples of the original price.
Robert Hughes, then the art critic of Time, accused Ms. Wyeth of orchestrating the whole thing as a publicity stunt. It is true that the Helga paintings, some of them nudes, were not entirely a secret.
Mr. Weymouth and James H. Duff, the director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art from 1973 until his retirement in 2011, had stored the works, and Mr. Wyeth had mischievously showed some of them over the years to a select few. But they were a shock to his wife. The transgression was not so much the implicit intimacy between the painter and his model, but the fact he had made the work without her knowing. As he told Ms. Landa and others, “I wanted to see what I could do without Betsy.”
In later years, Ms. Testorf was cryptic about the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wyeth. “There are many ways of making love, you know,” she told Jesse Brass and Bo Bartlett, who made a short film about her in 2018.
“Betsy had to stand tall,” Dr. Stoner, the conservator, said, “in the face of three things, four, if you count Robert Hughes: the secret modeling; the catalog raisonné, which the paintings had suddenly rendered incomplete and inaccurate; and the realization of how many people had known about the work. And she did stand tall. She immediately began cataloging and naming the work.”
Later, Ms. Testorf became the painter’s studio assistant and, as he grew older, his caregiver. Wyeth World, as Dr. Stoner noted, was complicated.
An elegant beauty with a no-nonsense attitude — a brother-in-law once described her as a Katharine Hepburn type — Ms. Wyeth in her own way was as much of an artist as her husband.
She restored and celebrated the vernacular architecture of the Brandywine region, including the Mill complex where they lived and Mr. Wyeth worked, among many other buildings there, and of Knox County, Maine, where she bought three islands, restoring a lighthouse on one where Jamie Wyeth now lives. “Betsy’s Village,” her husband called the islands. Her aesthetic was spare and Shaker-like: wooden benches, ladder back chairs and no pillows. You had to sit up straight.
“The Witching Hour,” otherwise known as drinks, was an evening ritual to which the couple would invite guests, often to view a new painting.
“You had to be on your toes,” Dr. Stoner recalled. “The scariest question was, ‘Which do you like best, the temperas or the watercolors?’ If you didn’t do well, you weren’t asked back. Betsy was extremely direct, highly intelligent and did not tolerate fools, complaining or self pity. They were equal fencing partners, to the betterment of both.”
Besides her son Jamie, Ms. Wyeth is survived by another son, Nicholas Wyeth, an art dealer, and a granddaughter.
In 2008, Ms. Wyeth bought an old sail loft that had been taken down years earlier to make way for a parking lot in Port Clyde, Maine. She had it put back together on one of the three islands in “Betsy’s Village.” It was a surprise birthday gift for her husband, yet another object for him to paint and with a gallery inside.
He worked on it all summer, and as Dr. Stoner said, did two curious things. He painted it at first with a bright sky, and then altered it to make the day a stormy one. And sometime that December, Dr. Stoner continued, he scraped off his signature. “It was as if he was erasing himself.”
As was her custom, Ms. Wyeth named the work. “Sail Loft,” she called it. But after Mr. Wyeth’s death in January 2009, she gave it a new title, “Goodbye, My Love,” which she later changed to the more simple, “Goodbye.”