Love story in paintings. The Wyeths: Andrew and Betsy
Maga’s Daughter"…It's my wife, Betsy. I had worked a long time on this [painting] and knew it wasn’t working. At the time I was on board of trustees of the Smithsonian Institution — quite prestigious. But Betsy didn’t like it, telling me that my work would suffer because of all these boards. I left for Washington one morning, and Betsy got furious, really flew into a rage. All the way down I kept thinking of that colour rising up high into her cheeks. I knew I had captured her. The colour of those cheeks under her coal black hair and that hat gives the portrait a real edge. […] It’s more than a picture of a lovely looking woman. It’s blood rushing up."
Betsy Wyeth has been an associate, business manager and muse for her husband Andrew for seven decades, as well as the chief archivist of his work. She introduced her husband to the subject of his most famous painting "Christina's World" (1948), posed for the woman crawling across the field to the house, and gave the work its name. It is unlikely that Andrew Wyeth would have achieved his position and fame if he had not once met Betsy Merle James, daughter of Elizabeth "Maga" James (hence the title of the "Maga's Daughter" portrait).
Newell’s sonAndrew Wyeth was born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His father was Newell Converse (N.C.) Wyeth, one of America’s greatest illustrators. Andrew was the youngest child in the family, and his three sisters and brother were also brilliant. The eldest sister, Henrietta, is often referred to as one of the most important female artists of the 20th century. The second daughter, Caroline, also followed her father’s footsteps, and the youngest Ann became a gifted musician. Nathaniel, Andrew’s older brother, was a mechanical engineer and inventor.
As an illustrator, Newell Converse Wyeth made a decent living, and the family was well off. Andrew was not in good health, one illness followed another, and he had to spend a lot of time at home, taking drawing lessons from his father. There was a noticeable difference between them: Wyeth Sr. was a large man with an unlimited supply of energy, in stark contrast to his weak and fragile son. Wyeth recalled of that time: "Pa kept me almost in a jail, just kept me to himself in my own world, and he wouldn’t let anyone in on it. I was almost made to stay in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest with Maid Marion and the rebels."
In 1937, at the age of 20, Andrew got his first solo watercolour exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. It was a resounding success, and all the works presented were sold. Now Wyeth Jr. himself was convinced that an artistic career was his real dream. However, the early triumph did not calm him down, like many talented people. The young man was extremely self-critical and was irritated by some of his work believing it to be too facile.
When Andrew met BetsyAndrew Wyeth met 17-year-old Betsy Merle James on 12 July 1939, the day he turned 22. The girl was the youngest of three daughters of artist Merle James, who worked for the Buffalo Courier Express. In the 1930s, the family spent the summer visiting friends at Bird Point, Maine. There they had neighbours: a blueberry farmer Alvaro Olson and his partially paralysed sister Christina, who suffered from polio as a child. Betsy was friends with Christina, and she took Andrew to her at their very first meeting.
Betsy was not an artist, but Andrew often asked her for her opinion on his work. On one of his first dates, he invited her to his studio and showed his watercolours. Betsy pointed to a tempera work lying on the floor, made in 1936 and later titled "The Young Swede", and said she would like to see more of these. And Wyeth mastered this technique. "If she hadn’t pushed him to work in tempera, he would never have become the artist he was," said Wyeth’s granddaughter Victoria.
After the death of her father-in-law, Betsy compiled and edited her book The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901−1945, which prompted art critics to reassess his career.
The Secret HelgaIt is difficult to say what was the motivation behind Andrew Wyeth when he chose models for his paintings. Art critic Wanda Korn called him a metaphorical realist, implying that he preferred people who reminded him of certain aspects of life or fragments of history that he was interested in. Wyeth explained: "The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models. … I have to become enamoured. Smitten. That’s what happened when I saw Helga."
In August 1986, the artworks were made public, and a real storm broke out in the art world. Betsy claimed to have learned about them a year before from her husband, who revealed the secret when he was afraid of dying of the flu. And when the journalists asked about the pictures, Mrs. Wyeth made a serious pause, and then uttered the magic word "love".
Time magazine cover dedicated to the story of Andy Wyeth and Helga Testorf
No one has found any evidence that Wyeth and Helga ever had an affair. If the pictures were about Love, as Betsy vaguely hinted, then this love was too generalized. Moreover, later the suspicion was confirmed that the artist’s wife knew about Helga’s portraits and even owned some of them. As Andrew’s administrator, she could hardly have overlooked a quarter of a thousand works in a third of their life together. After the storm had settled, the new owner of the paintings with Helga gave Betsy some of them. It was Wyeth’s wife who named the one, considered the most famous in the series now, "The Lovers".
By bequest, Helga inherited the Newell Converse’s farmhouse in Maine, and she still grows blueberries and makes jam there.
Director and her actorIn 1966, Andrew Wyeth told his biographer Richard Meryman: "Betsy galvanized me at the time I needed it. She’s made me into a painter that I would not have been otherwise. … She made me see more clearly what I wanted."
Betsy was also Andrew’s most dedicated curator, who organized his exhibitions and spent endless days cataloguing his work. She once said to the same Richard Meryman: "I am like a director, and I have the greatest actor in the world."