Monday, February 27, 2006

Andrew Wyeth:A Secret Life by Richard Merryman

I have been a fan of the famous artist, Andrew Wyeth, for as long as I can remember. Living in the Chester County, PA area I am only a stone's throw away from Chadds Ford, PA, the charming village where the Wyeth family has made their home for a few generations now. So it is no wonder that when a biography of Andrew Wyeth first hit the presses, I bought it right away.

Richard Merryman's book, "Andrew Wyeth A Secret Life", is a well written account of the fascinating life of one of this country's most beloved artists. Merryman is no stranger to the art world-- his father was a painter. While working for Life magazine for more than two decades, Merryman met and befriended Andrew Wyeth when he wrote an article about him for the magazine. Later he authored a book titled " Andrew Wyeth" about the artist's paintings. It was a no-brainer that Merryman would later be the one to one the most comprehensive biography of Andrew Wyeth.

The book details Andrew's tumultuous relationship with his larger than life father, the famous painter N.C. Wyeth. It also goes into great detail about their family life (Andrew was the youngest of five Wyeth children). Growing up in Chadds Ford, the Wyeth children studied art under the tutelage of their father. Andrew, a sickly child, always seemed to be special in his father's eyes. Thus, N.C. expected more out of him.

Merryman peppers the book with quotes and interviews from family members and family friends of the Wyeth family. Most telling are the interviews with Wyeth's wife, Betsy James Wyeth and his son, Jamie Wyeth.

We learn about Andrew's relationships with many of the Chadds Ford locals and the impact they had on his artwork, including the Kuerner family and Christina Olsen (a crippled Chadds Ford woman, made legendary in Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World). We get to learn all about what it was like to grow up with a famous, passionate father like N. C. and all of the elaborate things that the Wyeth children were privy to thanks to their father's wealth and fame. We get the detailed story of Wyeth's courtship with his future wife Betsy and the strange observation Betsy made on her wedding day. And we get the true scoop on Andrew's mysterious "Helga" paintings, secret paintings of a local woman, Helga Testorf that made international news when they were discovered in the 1980's-- even Wyeth's wife Betsy hadn't known about them (the Helga "scandal" even made the cover of Time magazine in 1986).

The book is mostly set in two places that Wyeth has called home: Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Maine (indeed, the family's second home in Maine was inspiration for many of Wyeth's works).

One of the most touching parts of the book is when Andrew learns of his father's death in 1945 (N.C. was tragically killed when he and his young grandson were struck by a locomotive during a drive in Chadds Ford). That event was a major turning point in Wyeth's career and his grief is apparent in the book.

Another very interesting anecdote involves the singer, the recently scandalized Michael Jackson. Merryman details a visit years ago to The Brandywine River Museum (the Chadds ford museum that houses most of Wyeth's works) by the famous pop star. Apparently, Jackson wanted Wyeth to paint his portrait. While the project never came to fruition, it is another example of how popular Wyeth is, even among today's superstars.

With Merryman's hauntingly lyrical storytelling, you actually feel as if you are walking through the hilly fields of Chadds Ford. He leaves no detail unturned and the entire book is just a joy to read, it really envelopes you into the passionate life of this famous man.

The book dozens of includes family photos and black and white (and a few color) reproductions of some of Wyeth's most famous works. This book is recommended for anyone who is interested in the Wyeth family or anyone that just likes to read a good biography. You don't have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate this book-- it's just the story of the life of an extraordinary man who just happens to love what he does for a living. What more could anyone ask for?

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