Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Brandywine River Museum

Housed in a repurposed, 19th-century, brick mill, the
museum is as pleasant as it is unpretentious.
If I had a dollar for every artist I've written about associated with the Brandywine River Museum...I'd have about five bucks. A couple days ago, still on our way home from two days in New York City, my wife and I detoured a few miles west of Philadelphia to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to pay our respects to one of the most famous and respected painting dynasties in America--the Wyeths.
Self-portraits of four generations of Brandywine School painters.
Actually the colorful (in more ways than one) saga of this family begins not with the famed Wyeth patriarch, N.C. Wyeth, but his not so well-known mentor, the turn-of-the-century illustrator, Howard Pyle, born in 1853. He considered N.C. Wyeth, born in 1882, to be his best student. N.C. Wyeth was best known as an illustrator of such classic novels as Treasure Island, King Arthur, several patriotic paintings, and the occasional Saturday Evening Post cover.
Four generations of Brandywine painting.
N.C. Wyeth and his wife had two daughters and a son. All three became painters though none matched in quantity or quality the work of the son, Andrew Wyeth, born in 1917. They did, however marry two of their father's more outstanding students, Peter Hurd and John McCoy. Andrew Wyeth's most famous work was undoubtedly Christina's World, painted in 1948, and now in New York's Museum of Modern Art. And finally, comes Andrew Wyeth's son (and my personal favorite of the clan) Jamie Wyeth, born in 1946. His most famous works include a much acclaimed portrait of President Kennedy painted when the artist was just twenty years old, and a similarly acclaimed Portrait of a Pig (below), painted in 1970.
Portrait of a Pig, 1970, Jamie Wyeth. Legend has it that when the artist took a break, he returned to discover that the pig had eaten some 32 tubes of oil paints Jamie had left unattended.
Jamie Wyeth is the last remaining heir to the hundred-year-old Brandywine school. He divides his time between a home near Chadds Ford and another in Maine. Despite his family name, his heritage, and painterly skill (and sometimes the result of all three), Jamie Wyeth has not had a smooth ride to art world recognition. His style has often been labeled as outdated, and overburdened with a kind of effete rural nostalgia. His content is unabashedly that of his father who, in fact, has suffered the same criticism. The best, or worst (depending upon your point of view) that can be said of both father and son is that they were out of step with their times.
Trading self-portraits, 1976.
Yet, in the art world, many accomplished painters have been accused of similar sins. Say what you will about Jamie Wyeth's style, his work has a very contemporary look as he walks a thin line between his family's past and his own strikingly Postmodern style and content. His Screen Door Sequence portrait, dating from 2015 (below, on display at the museum) of his now-deceased friend and idol, Andy Warhol (above), demonstrates his embrace of a past Realism applied in a Postmodern mode. The full-length portrait of Warhol is seen through an actual half-opened screen door.
First of the Screen Door Sequence, 2015, Jamie Wyeth
Postmodernism is on display not just in the broad spectrum of Jamie Wyeth's work on the walls of Brandywine, but inherent in the wall themselves. The highly functional, and strikingly contemporary architecture of Baltimore architect, James R. Grieves, over the years, has more than doubled the size of the original mill where the Wyeths once made their home. Grieves and his firm have spent some thirty-five years growing the museum from the original commission in 1968, its opening in 1971, an addition in 1984,  and yet another, $17.5 million expansion, in 2004. The museum was created by the nonprofit Brandywine Conservancy utilizing a converted grist mill off U.S. 1 in Chadds Ford to house the works of Andrew Wyeth and other members of the Brandywine Valley school of painting.

The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim
can be seen throughout the interior of Grieves'
Brandywine River Museum.
The Brandywine, some eighty miles north of Baltimore, has grown in other ways besides square footage. It opened with 20 works of art. Now it has more than 3,000 by a variety of artists, including Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Horace Pippen. More than 4.5 million people have visited over the past 30 years. With many art museums today the building seems to be in constant combat with the art to gain visual dominance. Grieves Brandywine Museum never upstages the art. Phases come together seamlessly. In addition, the architects solved difficult problems with building in a flood zone, while using mirrored glass to make the addition blend in with the landscape.

Fall at Archie's, 1937, Andrew Wyeth
An entire curved wall documents the impression
the museum has had on visiting school children.



  1. The Delaware Art Museum which is close to the Brandywine Museum in Wilmington has a great collection of Howard Pyle paintings. The Mermaid one is amazing.

    1. Bryan--
      Thanks for taking note. We also considered Winterthur, but time just wouldn't allow us to take in everything in an area so rich in art holdings and traditions.