Andrew Wyeth is not an artist normally associated with plumbing the depths of race relations or exploring the complexities of black life.
To most, Wyeth is known as a painter of weathered farmers, stubbled Chester County fields, curtains blowing in the breeze, a woman crawling toward a house on a hill in Cushing, Maine.
Yet the retrospective that opened Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, "Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect," may force some reconsideration. The exhibition of more than 100 works spanning Wyeth's entire career runs through Sept. 17. It is the first retrospective since his death in 2009, and it marks the centenary of his birth in 1917.
"In Retrospect" delivers the Wyeth of fields and melting snow and the brown grass of the Kuerner Farm. But here, also, is Wyeth as chronicler of the now-vanished Little Africa community in his home territory of Chadds Ford – a black island in a sea of brown fields and white faces.
Wyeth is gone and Little Africa is gone, but the paintings remain, attesting to a close, if not intimate, relationship the artist had with his black neighbors.
Here is Wyeth, portraitist of fur-hatted Adam Johnson, who lived a few houses away from the painter; of the brooding James Loper, given to long, moonlight walks in the countryside; of elderly Thomas Elwood Clark, tall, thin, and coming to his end; of alcoholic Willard Snowden, whom Wyeth housed and kept in booze to ensure he would be available for sittings.
Other African Americans who settled down the hill from the Wyeth compound, largely clustered around Mother Archie's Church, appear in dozens of paintings. So does Mother Archie's Church itself, an octagonal structure (now lying in neatly maintained suburban ruins) that began as a Quaker schoolhouse in 1838 and that was subsequently used by black worshipers as their church.
The vestiges of this particular black enclave have vanished over the last 20 years, swallowed up by development and rising real estate valuations, but the area around Chadds Ford and Kennett Square was home to black Americans since before the Civil War, according to local historians, with their numbers increasing during and after Reconstruction.
Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, said several African American churches were active in around Kennett Square in southern Chester County.
The New Garden Memorial Church was once right outside the borough, in an area known as Timbuctu, "a reference to the famous seat of learning in Africa," Densmore said, adding that there was also another local American Union Methodist Protestant church, called Erizion.
"Also relatively nearby was the AME Church in Thornbury Township, Ebenezer AME in East Marlborough, another [American Union Methodist Protestant] church in Denton Hollow a couple of miles north. An AME church in Concordville (no longer in use but the building is still standing)," Densmore wrote. "All of these are within 10 miles of 'Little Africa' and I suspect there were more."
It is not surprising, then, that African Americans were very much a part of the rural world Wyeth grew up in. As a kid, he played with black friends.
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, notes in her catalog essay on the subject that "time spent with his 'boon' companion David 'Doo-Doo' Lawrence was both thrilling and inspiring for the young artist."
Shaw quotes Wyeth: "Doo-Doo had great imagination; more imagination than any white boy I ever met."
Wyeth and Lawrence would don costumes for family amusements typical of the artist's household, particularly around Halloween — "Doo-Doo" playing Friar Tuck, "Mr. Andy" playing Robin Hood.
(Lawrence referred to Wyeth as "Mr. Andy" his entire life, Shaw says, a reflection of paternalistic racial and class relationships that were still present in mid-20th-century America.)
Shaw quotes Wyeth's recollection of Lawrence, which is strikingly visual — as though Wyeth were imagining his friend on canvas: "He dressed in black with that cowl — and his marvelous black face and the whites of his eyes. Oh, God, it was wonderful."
From Wyeth's childhood, black people were part of his life, so it is not surprising he would be attracted to them as subjects. Once Wyeth latched onto a subject, he was loath to let it go. His father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, drilled into the boy what he considered a cardinal rule of art-making: "You must be like a sponge. Sponge it up. Soak it up."
Wyeth lived that rule. It guided his art and his life with the power of memory — to the point that he felt all he needed could be circumscribed by a few miles of Chester County and a few miles around his Maine summer home.
"He did leave occasionally," said Audrey Lewis, co-curator of the Brandywine. "As a rule, he found everything he needed in his own environment. … He could find more and more, every nuance could be explored. He took these walks since he was a boy. That's how he found the Kuerner farm. He'd walk and think, looking down."
By the time Wyeth began to focus on his African American neighbors, Little Africa was vanishing. Mother Archie's Church was abandoned in the 1940s. Many former congregants had died or moved away, but some remained, and Shaw notes that Wyeth tended to romanticize them.
The artist described Willard Snowden in The Drifter (1964) as having a nose like "a map of the world of all the Negroes at Mother Archie's, nostrils like one of the hills he walked over."
Snowden, as it happens, was an alcoholic whom Wyeth housed in his studio, kept stocked with wine, and didn't hesitate to paint and sketch in even dire situations.
Shaw recounts one story Wyeth told about the genesis of Jack and Willard (1968). Wyeth was out walking through the fields when he came upon Snowden sprawled on the ground, his head near a jack-in-the-pulpit.
"Fortunately," Wyeth recalled, "I had my watercolor tackle box and large pad with me when I was shocked to discover Willard passed out on the path. At first, I thought he was dead. Then I noticed an empty wine bottle beside him. He never knew I did this watercolor."
Wyeth's treatment of Snowden, seemingly distant to the point of coldness, is characteristic of his dealings with his subjects, black or white, Shaw says. (She calls it Wyeth's "nonjudgmental acceptance".) They were all figures in his landscape, shaped by memory, and always secondary to the main event: The Painting.
Sometimes, however, what appears black is, in fact, white. Wyeth sought to disguise the race of his sitter in at least two nudes by changing her race.
Barracoon (1976) and Heat Lightning (1977) both began as depictions of Wyeth's white neighbor Helga Testorf, subject of a series of sometimes quasi-erotic paintings that Wyeth supposedly kept hidden from his wife, Betsy.
Shaw characterizes Wyeth's act here as costuming white with black, a reflection of the power and control he believed he could exercise by birthright.
"If black bodies could no longer be controlled in the same way as they once had been, their blackness could still be placed like a costume atop the form of Helga Testorf or wherever the artist wanted and needed it to be," Shaw writes.
Betsy Wyeth's possible negative reaction to more secret Helga nudes could have led Wyeth to use race to cloak her identity. Shaw said in an email, "The frequency with which Wyeth engaged in racial masquerade at Halloween and in his paintings suggests to me that he saw the visual markers of racial difference as being at his command."
Wyeth reportedly remarked that Helga in black skin was "purity, simplicity." The title of the painting, he said, refers to "the enclosures in which they kept slaves in the time of Thomas Jefferson."
Betsy Wyeth, who clearly saw through the supposed ruse, told the New York Times years ago, "it's a remarkable painting."
"There's Helga," she said, "but she's a Negress. He told me, 'It just didn't work with Helga,' but he was very tight-lipped. I don't know, and I don't pry. Not if the work is Barracoon."