Andrew Wyeth was already a highly regarded painter, part of a multi-generational artistic dynasty, when he became the art world’s answer to Bruce Springsteen by landing on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week in August 1986. But this level of fame came less because of his skill than the whiff of scandal associated with a secret cache of paintings unknown to his wife.
In a blogpost from three years ago, I called the Brandywine River Museum of Art, in Chadds Ford, Pa., “perhaps the best regional art museum I’ve come across.” One major reason for this was its association with Wyeth and his family. Andrew’s father, N.C., became famous for vivid illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne classics that enthralled me as a child. Son Jamie has made his own mark over the years, including a painting of a thoughtful, grave President Kennedy.
Unlike many of his contemporary painters who created abstract works, Andrew Wyeth seldom left viewers puzzled at what they were seeing. But that didn’t mean he didn’t make them wonder what was behind it. That was particularly the case with his 246 studies, drawings, and paintings of neighbor Helga Testorf.
The 15 years in which Helga posed, the intense amount of time even a single sitting might take (sometimes up to eight hours), and the intimate of the paintings—including a number of full-frontal nudes—would have been enough to make the work notorious. But what sealed the deal was the one-word description of their subject matter by Wyeth’s wife and business manager, Betsy: “Love.”
Betsy, the New York Times reported, did not know of the paintings’ existence until 1985, when Wyeth, fearing he might be dying of influenza, told her about them.
Not everyone accepted the history of the paintings presented by the Wyeths. One dissenter was Robert Hughes, chief art critic of Time. “I expressed skepticism about it,” he recalled two decades later about his conversation with his bosses at Time. “It all seemed a little too good to be quite true, and the romance with the blonde struck me as distinctly unlikely. And since it had long been a well-known fact that Betsy Wyeth was her husband’s business manager, the notion of a quarter of a thousand objects squirreled away from her eyes over one-third of their matrimonial life together seemed even less likely.”
Neither Hughes nor his counterpart as chief art critic at Newsweek wrote their magazines’ cover stories on the find. Consequently, the stories played up the scandal seemingly beneath the surface, with words like “secret” and “obsession” on the covers, rather than putting the work within the context of the artist’s broader career.
I found particularly interesting in this whole curious incident the role played by a secondary character, Leonard Andrews, the initial buyer of the paintings. Andrews owned 25 newsletters. (My favorite title: Swine Flu Claim and Litigation Reporter.) Wyeth, grateful for the Texan’s promise to keep the collection intact, awarded him reproduction rights in return for $6 million.
Wasting no time in drumming up interest in the collection, Andrews sent out press releases and, with scandal whetting publishers’ interest, signed a book deal that became a bonanza when 400,000 copies were sold. A touring exhibition of seven American galleries, including the National Gallery of Art, exposed the collection to a million visitors.
In 1989, Andrews sold the paintings to an unidentified Japanese collector, for somewhere between $40 million and $60 million. Altogether, the Texas publisher was believed to have reaped an estimated three-year profit on this cache of art of more than 600%, according to Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight.
Given these circumstances, were Hughes’ suspicions correct about a nonexistent scandal used to hype the paintings and drive up their sales price? In favor of that notion were the following:
*It would have been enormously difficult for Wyeth to hide the paintings’ existence from Betsy because of the amount of time he is supposed to have spent with Helga;
*At least one person not involved with the Wyeth or Testorf families had seen at least one of these works: Nancy Hoving, wife of the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time;
*The Brandywine River Museum acknowledged that it knew of the paintings’ existence before it was revealed to the world and, in fact, had already displayed some from time to time;
* Wyeth’s sister, Carolyn, dismissed the speculation of an affair between her brother and his subject as “a bunch of crap.”
“What do you do with the girl next door?” novelist John Updike wrote in his review of the Wyeth show. That may be the operative question in this whole hullabaloo. In one sense, it may not have mattered whether or not the Wyeths were complicit in drumming up publicity for these paintings. What did matter was that life changed fundamentally for “the girl next door,” Helga.
In an interview with Monty Python member Michael Palin for the BBC program Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World that was broadcast over a year ago, Helga said Wyeth had promised that the paintings would not be displayed until after his death (which did not occur until 2009, 38 years after she first posed for him). Her answer as to why he broke his pledge was cryptic but suggestive: “I think he was caught in something to let it come out. It was his promise, but Mother Nature had other plans.”
While one rumor had it that a certain chill entered the relationship between Andrew and Betsy after the revelation of the paintings, what was indisputable was that, at least for a time, Helga became collateral damage. Constant press inquiries forced this neighbor to flee from this area of rural Pennsylvania where she had long lived.
It was all part of a larger cycle of paradoxical emotional fragility and nurturing for Helga, a native of Prussia who, as a child, had been imprisoned in Denmark with her family at the end of WWII. She had been educated in a Protestant convent for a few years, married, emigrated to Philadelphia, and, by 1970, was working as a nurse in Chadds Ford for Wyeth’s neighbor Karl Kuerner when she met the painter.
In one sense, Helga was right in telling Palin that sex had “nothing to do with” her relationship with Wyeth. The two met when each was at a crossroads, shadowed by death. Kuerner was terminally ill at the time that Helga was caring for him, while Wyeth had two years before lost Christina Olson, a friend and neighbor afflicted with polio who had been his favorite subject (including in perhaps his most famous painting, Christina’s World).
As a result of the paintings, Helga later said, according to Richard Meryman’s biography Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life: "I became alive. It shows in the pictures. I became young overnight. I've never done anything more worthwhile." As for Wyeth, the collaboration with this muse gave him a more personal outlet than he may have felt he had in the past few years. Betsy was an extraordinarily shrewd business manager, but she also wanted her husband to continue to generate images in the style people associated him with—to turn out similar paintings “like pancakes,” in Helga’s phrase. In contrast, this intensely focused group of paintings offered at least some degree of creative freedom.
The media crush resulting from the Wyeths’ revelations of the paintings led Helga to flee Chadds Ford for awhile. In time, she returned, even becoming one of his chief caregivers before his death in 2009.