Cover photo by N.C. Wyeth
“To Billy From Grandma” is written inside the old book. It brings back a memory of a musty old bookshop in San Francisco. I had stepped from the bright sunlight into the dimly lighted confines of what might become a pleasant hour of book-looking pleasure. When I picked up the old copy of Robinson Crusoe” and saw N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations within it, I was sure I had struck gold.
N.C. Wyeth was one of America’s greatest illustrators. His first work on Treasure Island” allowed him to pay for his studio in Chadds Ford, PA. He was a painter as well as an illustrator, and said that the two cannot be mixed. He left a legacy of over 3,000 paintings and 112 book illustrations, but perhaps he is best remembered now as the father of Andrew Wyeth and four other talented children.
The family grew up in Chadds Ford, and all five children were home schooled. As a child, Andrew showed promise as an artist, and his father was his only art teacher. He lived the rest of his life in Chadds Ford, and later remarked that “he painted his life”.
His painting of neighbor Christina Olson, “Christina’s World, is one of the most well known paintings of the 20th century and is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art New York.
Not as well known are the Helga paintings; 247 paintings in intimate detail of Helga Testorf, a caregiver/nurse for neighbor Karl Kuener, whose farm is seen at the top of the hill in Christina’s World.
The drawings and paintings of Helga Testorf were made over a fifteen year period, and were kept secret from both Andrew’s wife Betsy, and Helga’s husband. They were stored at the home of Andrew’s student Frolic Weymouth. Helga has the distinction of being made famous by a painting, except perhaps the Mona Lisa.
Andrew Wyeth said that he felt he had been kept in a prison by his father; never leaving his home, he painted what he saw around him. To have painted this one subject of Helga without anyone knowing for fifteen years and then suddenly showing them to the world gave him a long imagined sense of independence.
When asked if Helga was going to be present at his 91st birthday, he said “Yeah, certainly, oh absolutely–she’s part of the family now. I know it shocks everyone. That’s what I like about it. It really shocks ’em.
In 1986 the collection went on tour to much criticism, saying it had a voyeuristic aura. After the tour the entire collection was sold to a Japanese buyer.