The death of Andrew Wyeth yesterday evoked expressions of sorrow and admiration from local art lovers and sages, and fond recollections from those who knew him as father, grandfather or friend.

Art savants hailed Wyeth's unique ability to make the local universal and to transcend realism by rendering the ordinary in ways that suggested the mysteries of the human psyche and the tensions of 20th-century life.

The waitresses at Hank's Place in Chadds Ford had a simpler view of the man they usually saw about once a week.

He liked the Pennsylvania Dutch pork and sauerkraut, recalled Rhonda Thompson. Wyeth's friend and model, Helga Testorf, would call ahead to see if that dish was available, then they would come over, Thompson said.

And Wyeth always smiled, recalled Vicki Sylvester. "That smile just lights up his face," she said.

Wyeth "died at home very peacefully," his son Nicholas said yesterday. "He was a very happy man."

At the nearby Brandywine River Museum, a treasury of Wyeth family artwork and artifacts and a shrine to the Wyeth affection for Chester County's pastoral vistas, a freshly installed sign gave the dates of Andrew Wyeth's life: 1917 to 2009.

Beneath the sign, a journal lay open for visitors to add their comments.

The first entry was from Wyeth's granddaughter Victoria, who came to the museum with her father, Nicholas.

"I love you so much Andy," she wrote. "You have been the greatest inspiration to me as a person and as my grandpa. I'll miss you with all my heart. XX Vic."

Other visitors reacted emotionally to the artist's death.

One man approached executive director James H. Duff in the Wyeth gallery soon after the doors opened and said: "I come here often, and I had to come today."

Writer and illustrator Gene Barretta, 48, of Wynnewood, got a phone call from his wife informing him that Wyeth had died. A frequent visitor to the museum, Barretta immediately decided to pay homage.

"You are not gone for me," Barretta wrote in the journal. "You are in every blade of grass here in Chadds Ford. I'll take a walk with you whenever I need a dose of inspiration."

Chadds Ford was the matrix for much of Wyeth's work.

"His personal perception of the world was revealed through his depictions of people and objects and landscapes that he knew intimately," Duff said, "but those things always turned into the universal, making him popular around the world."

At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which enjoyed a 70-year relationship with Wyeth, museum director David Brigham characterized Wyeth in a word - giant.

"Andrew Wyeth captured a sense of the American dream and, when we look closely at his work, our longings and anxieties, too," Brigham said. "He was one of the great chroniclers of everyday life in rural America, and one of the great interpreters of the American experience in the mid- to late 20th century."

One of most remarkable things about Wyeth, Brigham said, is that he developed a clear vision early in his career and never strayed from it.

"He had great pride in his craft, and a vivid sense of the human concerns – love, death, sexuality - that pervade his work and that, as expressed by him, are both universal and distinctly American."

Wyeth was a regular exhibitor at the academy from 1938 to 1965. In 1966, he was honored with a major exhibition that was so popular that the line of people seeking admission stretched down Broad Street. "It's still one of the high-water marks of community engagement with the academy," Brigham said.

The academy reciprocated by twice awarding Wyeth its highest honor, in 1966 and again in 1998, the only two-time winner Brigham could recall.

A treasure in the museum's permanent collection is Young America, which Wyeth painted in 1950 and the museum acquired in 1951. The painting shows a young man riding a red bicycle across a bleak landscape rendered in muted earth tones. A red, white and blue feather flies from a pole attached to the bike, and streamers on the handlebars dance in the wind. The boy's mouth is agape as he stares at the spare horizon and gray sky.

"It's a wonderful, psychologically compelling painting," Brigham said. "It conveys a sense of longing, of moving someplace but with no clear destination."

Wyeth was among a group of painters who have come to be called "magic realists," Brigham said.

"They're painting realistic things, but with a depth of feeling that goes beyond the literal depiction. The works explore deeper psychological themes that imbue them with a yearning, haunting quality that captures a sense of isolation, alienation or ambiguousness that is often identified with mid-20th-century American angst."

People make a mistake when they overlook that quality in Wyeth's art, which is sometimes dismissed as sentimental, Brigham said. "His vision is often rather melancholy. He captured our dreams, but also our longings."

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns three tempera paintings by Wyeth and numerous drawings and watercolors, Kathleen Foster, curator of American art, said Wyeth had been "our most beloved living artist."

"He's important especially in Philadelphia because his work is so locally based," Foster said. "People here have a strong sense of connection to him, because the landscape elements of his paintings are so familiar."

A Wyeth retrospective in 2006 drew more than 177,000 visitors, the highest attendance at the museum for a living artist.

"He had an intensely personal way of painting," Foster continued. "He would step outside and paint scenes in his own backyard, and portray his family, friends and neighbors. It was a very circumscribed universe, and yet that very personal artwork was recognized worldwide as having universal resonance.

"There's an eerie, haunting quality in his paintings that strikes people who don't know what the Brandywine Valley looks like, and that's what gives his work such widespread appeal. His art is not just about local subject matter; he is tapping into deep themes of human existence, memory and emotion."

At the time of the 2006 retrospective, Wyeth permitted the museum to display the sketches and drawings that led to his 1959 masterpiece Groundhog Day. Wyeth was averse to showing unfinished or preparatory drawings because he believed the final painting should speak for itself. It was as though the picture had "an inevitability," Foster said, and he didn't want people looking over his shoulder before it achieved its final form.

But Wyeth made an exception after museum curators convinced him that the suite of evolving drawings amounted to a narrative itself, "a metaphor for his imagination." The result was one of the most compelling parts of the 2006 exhibition.

The drawings showed that Wyeth was no photorealist simply replicating what was before him, Foster said. Instead, he assembled the paintings from "layers of experience, sometimes over months." The drawings included people, a threatening dog, and other details - none of which is in the final painting of a table in front of a window, a landscape and tree stump outside.

After the exhibit was over, Wyeth gave the entire set of a dozen or so studies to the museum.

Wyeth's granddaughter said yesterday that one of the last things the family talked about was Snow Hill, a 1989 painting that is "his death scene."

The work shows all of Wyeth's models jubilantly dancing, having been freed from the constraints of holding poses for hours at a time. Many of his models have died.

"That's who he's with now," Victoria Wyeth said.

Contact staff writer Art Carey
at 610-696-3249 or acarey@phillynews.com.
Staff writer Stephan Salisbury contributed to this article.