Monday, January 25, 2016

One Brandywine, Many Wyeths

In mid-January, on a business trip to Pennsylvania, I tacked on an extra day or two for museum exploration around Philadelphia.

What a treat it was to visit the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., home to an extensive collection of paintings by N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, additional Wyeth family painters and other artists.

With thanks to the museum P.R. department for a media ticket, I was treated to views of several dozen N.C. Wyeth canvases known since childhood via the pages of adventure books "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped" or "Robin Hood."

Though renovations are underway this winter, their permanent collection items on view were impressive, starting with a large room dedicated to the most senior Wyeth, N.C.

The third floor gallery features several of the artist's earliest work including his breakthrough commissions and follow up material that vividly captured literature enjoyed by millions. Over here, pirates! Over there, shipwrecks! Around each corner seemed a new yet familiar surprise awaiting discovery.

Many of these large, colorful illustrations remind me of the Dallas-based artist Bart Forbes -- a painter and illustrator known for his Olympic art commissions and paintings created for the U.S. Postal Service (my introduction to Forbes, when I was a teenager, included comparing his sports portraits to some of Wyeth's illustrations and paintings of literary characters).

One canvas that was new to my eyes was N.C. Wyeth's "Death of Edwin" with a young man drawing his last breath atop some hay. This jumped off the canvas for me as it reminded me of a favorite painting by Andrew, one of N.C.'s sons.

My expectations were elevated for the next gallery, which is dedicated to Andrew, an artist who I met briefly while working with with the P.R. account team for the High Museum of Art expansion.

The museum's new-in-2005 galleries in a Renzo Piano-designed building were filled with Wyeths, creating one of my all-time favorite exhibitions. Upon arrival at Brandywine, I was curious which of the Atlanta exhibition works would be on view.

It made me very happy to spot Andrew's work titled "Spring" featuring a hillside covered with dead, damp grass and just two remaining patches of snow, with one pile of powder sporting the likeness of "Old Man Winter" gazing skyward.

Having just seen "Death of Edwin" in the previous gallery, for the first time I noticed Andrew's possible homage to his father's illustration via the melting snowman (my guess is this comparison is commonly drawn but it was new to me).

I also enjoyed learning about the people and location depicted in the large Andrew Wyeth canvas titled "Snow Hill" featuring a May Pole-like structure and several adults enjoying winter play.

My best guess was the men and women included the artist's siblings, but this thinking was quickly corrected by a helpful staff member who explained the dancers instead include the artist's models and one "blank space" perhaps as a placeholder for Andrew's other source of inspiration, his father.

The hilltop setting is only steps from the current Brandywine site.

Gallery three included a handful of works by Jamie Wyeth -- the third generation of American painters -- and works by other Wyeths including Andrew's sisters.

The museum also presented a temporary exhibition titled "Natural Selections: Andrew Wyeth Plant Studies" -- my favorite in this room was the sycamore-inspired "Summer Freshet Study" which reminded me of spring in my parents' backyard in Edmond, Okla., where they planted four sycamores that are now enormous (for this writer, Wyeth is the best sycamore painter anywhere).

The Brandywine staff shared that the 2005 partnership with the High is getting recharged later this year as the museums are teaming up for a new exhibition titled "Rural Modern: American Art Beyond The City" on view initially at the Brandywine from Oct. 29 to Jan. 22, 2017 (the dates for the High exhibition remain "to be announced").

I hope to return to Chadds Ford during the spring or summer when the Brandywine offers tours of both N.C. and Andrew's studios and several other indoor and outdoor experiences.

When visitors find themselves near the Brandywine campus, I recommend a stop at the nearby eatery Hank's Place just across the highway. This place is hopping with great food and conversation (Andrew Wyeth himself dined there, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Images include items from the Brandywine River Museum website and/or photos in the museum by Nicholas Wolaver. Image of "Spring" by Andrew Wyeth via this site

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