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Betsy Wyeth, muse and the force behind Andrew Wyeth’s success, dies at age 98

She managed the business, named his paintings, and was the chief architect of the Wyeth mystique.

Betsy Wyeth, Maine, 1984
Betsy Wyeth, Maine, 1984Read moreCourtesy of Ralston Gallery

Betsy James Wyeth, 98, the widow of painter Andrew Wyeth who was his muse, model, archivist, and the business brains behind his career, died Tuesday, April 21, at home in Chadds Ford. Mrs. Wyeth had been in declining health for a number of years, a spokesperson for the family said.

The Wyeths met in 1939, when Betsy was 17. Andrew proposed within about a week, they married 10 months later, and they quickly formed one of the most successful personal and professional partnerships in the history of art.

More than just the organizational and financial genius of the enterprise, Mrs. Wyeth also had a firm hand in guiding her husband's artistic development. She critiqued his work and suggested subjects for his paintings. She encouraged Andrew Wyeth’s artistic independence from his father and only teacher, illustrator N.C. Wyeth.

Later she came up with the idea of turning an old grist mill in Chadds Ford into what would become the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which opened in 1971 and continues in part as a shrine to her husband and the artist family from which he sprang.

“Virtually every corner of [Andrew] Wyeth’s existence is somehow influenced by Betsy,” wrote Richard Meryman in Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. "She frees him from all responsibilities, administers the investments, the painting collection, the files and records, her staff, the properties, the business decisions.”

Mrs. Wyeth gave her husband the “protected, predictable, disciplined platform essential to his life," Meryman wrote.

"She lived life quietly but large,“ said Peter Ralston, who met the Wyeths in the late 1950s and often photographed them. "She had a great sense of humor; she was intellectually gifted, to say the very least. She was every bit as creative and brilliant as Andy.”

It was she who introduced Andrew Wyeth to Christina Olson, a family friend in Cushing, Maine. The resulting image, produced a few years later, featured a female figure — part Betsy Wyeth, part Christina Olson — appearing to drag herself across a large field, and Christina’s World became a rare instance of fine art crossing over into pop iconography.

Andrew and Betsy Wyeth were often referred to as being two sides of the same coin. “Really she should have also signed his paintings,” said Jamie Wyeth, one of the couple’s two sons, in the short film Betsy’s World.

But Mrs. Wyeth did not widely project a powerhouse persona.

“There were all of these different angles to this woman, and yet she always stayed in the background,” said Mary Landa, the manager of the Betsy & Andrew Wyeth Collection who knew Mrs. Wyeth for nearly a half-century. “She never wanted her picture taken. It was always Andrew. And she was a very shy person, so that was great cover for her.”

A life in art seemed like a birthright for both Wyeths. His father, N.C., made his fortune illustrating advertisements and popular editions of Treasure Island and The Boy’s King Arthur. Born Sept. 26, 1921, in East Aurora, N.Y., Betsy Merle James was the daughter of Elizabeth Browning James and Merle Davis James. Her father was a rotogravure editor at the Buffalo Courier-Express, a painter, and art director for Roycroft, the community of artists and craftworkers. The family summered in Cushing, where she met her husband.

The Wyeths married in East Aurora and honeymooned in Port Clyde, Maine. After a few days, Andrew returned to painting.

“I’ve got to get back to work,” he told his new bride. “Everything else is going to be secondary.”

Mrs. Wyeth made sure of it, and she set about creating the conditions under which he would be able to pursue art to the exclusion of everything else.

“She was often the person who named the paintings, and she was also his greatest critic and judge,” said Kathleen A. Foster, the Philadelphia Museum of Art senior curator of American art who organized an Andrew Wyeth retrospective at the museum in 2006. “There was a great moment of revelation when he finished a painting and brought it in and hung it on a nail in the wall. She was his number-one audience in that respect. He was painting to please her, to get her approval.”

Sometimes he would make changes based on her comments, and she had strong opinions about framing designs. She even intuited his aesthetic sensibilities, assembling one mise en scène after another meant to catch his eye.

“She would create environments to inspire him, like the landscape on Benner Island — that was largely invented by Betsy,” said Foster, referring to one of several islands in Maine occupied by Wyeth family members. “She brought those buildings there and constructed the whole village out there on these islands. That was her artwork. I really do think she was creating the landscape that she thought he would like to paint. The scenes she was setting up on the inside of the houses and on the outside — I see her as a kind of landscape artist.”

Betsy Wyeth was the author of a certain carefully constructed look, a kind of rustic glamour that permeated his art as well their homes in Chadds Ford and coastal Maine. But Andrew also went his own way.

“Betsy had an aesthetic of ‘glacial neatness.’ Andrew would say that he liked to go between the two worlds of Chadds Ford and Maine, or back and forth between free ‘wild’ watercolor and very precise tempera,” said Joyce Hill Stoner, a trustee of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, longtime Wyeth family friend, and conservator of his works.

“And he also had another two worlds: Betsy's stark rooms and houses versus his own various studios with Helga Testorf as his studio assistant for his last two decades. Helga kept things in a tumult.”

Testorf was a neighbor who modeled for Andrew Wyeth for more than 15 years. Their collaboration produced more than 240 paintings and drawings of Testorf both nude and clothed that, when revealed, were a surprise to many, including Mrs. Wyeth. The “Helga Pictures,” as they came to be known, created a splash of scandal, landing on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.

Asked why her husband felt he had to keep the pictures a secret and what they were about, Betsy Wyeth answered: “Love.” Otherwise, she responded to the notoriety by cataloging the Helga pictures, which were then sold. “The only way she could ground herself was to put them in order. It was a very rough few years for Betsy,” said Landa.

She was an expert at leveraging the commercial value of her husband’s art. At age 18 or 19, she was already questioning the commissions collected by galleries. She wrote and edited books: among them, a monograph on Christina’s World, the collected letters of N.C. Wyeth, and a survey of images Andrew produced over 44 years of the people, places, and objects in the crude but subject-rich world of Kuerner Farm in Chadds Ford.

In the 1970s, she marketed art reproductions connected to a Wyeth show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the 1980s, she worked with IBM to develop computer imaging software to preserve, organize, catalog, and reproduce high-quality digital images. Christina’s World became one of the most widely reproduced art posters in history, according to the Brandywine Museum.

After Andrew Wyeth’s death in 2009, she donated his studio to the Brandywine, whose existence she had first imagined decades earlier.

“I’m sure there would not be a Brandywine Museum without Betsy, I’m sure of that,” said James H. Duff, the museum’s former director.

The Wyeths enjoyed giving extravagant birthday or anniversary gifts to each other, like Howard Pyle paintings. Andrew had jeweler Donald Pywell make Betsy platinum or gold necklaces that echoed features from his tempera paintings, said Stoner. “She would knit him the most complicated patterned sweaters of gorgeous colors from his paintings — sky blues of the Maine landscape skies or earth colors,” said Stoner.

Few gifts, though, could match what Betsy gave Andrew the day they met, when she brought him over to meet the Olsons.

As Jamie said in Betsy’s World, Wyeth started painting images of the Olson house that very day. “And then for the next 45 years, that house and that family — [brother] Alvaro and Christina Olson — became [a] focus of his work. And how a 17-year-old girl could sense that I think is just extraordinary.”

Surviving in addition to Jamie Wyeth of Wilmington, are her son Nicholas Wyeth of Elkton, Md., and granddaughter Victoria Wyeth of Philadelphia. Services are private. Donations in her name may be made to the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, Pa., 19317, or the Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland, Maine, 04841.