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New life for the Wyeth legacy 5 miles out to sea
The Wyeth Block House on Allen Island, Maine, Jan. 13, 2022. Colby College has acquired two islands off Maine that inspired the first family of American art, and will show newly discovered works that Andrew Wyeth drew in secret. Cig Harvey/The New York Times.

by Meredith Mendelsohn

NEW YORK, NY.- Nestled in the Atlantic Ocean, 5 miles off the coast of the picturesque town of Port Clyde, Maine, lie two rugged islands with stories to tell. Allen and Benner, as they are called, have witnessed a string of inhabitants over the centuries, from the Abenaki people and English colonists to homesteading lobstermen. And then came Betsy and Andrew Wyeth — mid-coast Maine locals and the most high-profile members of what many consider the first family of American art.

After the death in 2020 at age 98 of Betsy James Wyeth, the notoriously formidable adviser, collaborator, business manager, muse, and wife of the realist painter Andrew Wyeth, a polarizing figure in American art history, the keys to the castle are now passing to a far younger generation. (He died in 2009 at 91.)

Colby College of Waterville, Maine, around 75 miles inland from the islands, is set to announce it has acquired Allen and Benner from the family’s two foundations, Up East and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The Colby connection could breathe new life into a name that has been lacking in youthfulness for some time.

The islands are rich with wildlife and dotted with vernacular architecture — some buildings that Betsy restored, and some that she designed — that evoke the thriving fishing village that once stood here.

In the acquisition, Colby is not just adding a 500-acre island campus to its 700 acres in Waterville; it is also playing an instrumental role in carrying forward the complex Wyeth legacy. While the college is not taking ownership of Andrew Wyeth’s artworks that were once on the islands, the Colby College Museum of Art will be the first to publicly present more than a dozen drawings he made in the 1990s of his imagined funeral, which he kept secret, according to the painter Jamie Wyeth, Andrew and Betsy’s youngest son.

The recently discovered images on view June 2 through Oct. 16, show Andrew lying in a coffin and the guests who would likely attend, including his wife and friends (who were also his subjects). “Toward the end of his life he got nervous,” Jamie Wyeth said. He had seen a photograph of a friend in a coffin at a viewing and it sent him into a “tailspin,” he added.

The acquisition of the two islands cost the college $2 million, with the rest of the property’s market value — a total of $10 million to $12 million, said Colby College’s president, David Greene — contributed as a gift in kind by the foundations. “We could have held onto the islands, but to see them frozen in amber would be a tragedy,” said J. Robinson West, president of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

Betsy purchased Allen Island in 1979 at the suggestion of Jamie, who is now 75 and spends much of his time in Southern Island, which his parents bought in 1978, and Monhegan Island, where he lives in a house built by the artist Rockwell Kent. In 1990, Betsy also bought Benner, the much smaller island next door. She spent May through October here, and her husband did, too, whenever she could lure him by boat from his preferred workspace in his childhood home in Port Clyde, in the studio of his father, the legendary illustrator N.C. Wyeth.

Allen and Benner were never the kind of illustrious summer getaway one might typically find on Maine’s coast. “Betsy never identified with the summer people,” West said. Her husband did not either. “I like Maine in spite of its scenery,” he told his eventual biographer, Richard Meryman.

Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, who both grew up summering inshore nearby, shared an appreciation for Maine’s hardscrabble mid-coast working class, the same weatherworn fishermen and farm folk Andrew Wyeth nearly obsessively depicted. There is no grand estate to behold here, but Betsy Wyeth did construct a commercial-size dock for local lobstering crews to use as a way station. On approaching the islands, a cluster of cedar-shingled and white clapboard structures emerge in the distance. And then hundreds of brightly hued lobster traps appear stacked in neat towers.

“My mother really did not want the islands to be a museum,” Jamie Wyeth said on a visit to Allen and Benner last month with Greene and a reporter. “She wanted them to be working islands. And they’ll be working even more now.”

Colby has had partial access to Allen Island since 2016. and Greene is working with the foundation to determine the best use of historical buildings on Benner, where the Wyeths lived. The college’s aim is not just about caring for the structures, Greene said. “It’s also a recognition that these islands need to change over time for them to continue to be vital and relevant, and to do so in a way that demonstrates the same care that Betsy had for them.”

Colby is retaining the working lobster wharf while expanding the use of the islands as an interdisciplinary study center. It’s an opportune time to have an island field station; data indicates that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world’s oceans, and students and faculty are closely observing biodiversity shifts.

Colby’s newfound access has enabled the college to spearhead research and attract new faculty and grants, says Whitney King, a chemistry professor. A major study Colby conducted around the economics of the lobster industry and how it might be affected over time is one way that Greene is trying to broaden what the Wyeths started.

Students also have a rich past to dig into. The British explorer George Weymouth landed on Allen in 1605, and a stone cross bearing his name, planted at the island’s edge around 300 years later, stands as a reminder that the first Anglican Church service in North America was held here. It’s an eerie counterpoint to the shell middens and arrowheads found when Betsy Wyeth arrived.

If the lobster traps stacked here today were more weathered, they might have been fodder for one of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. A household name throughout much of the 20th century, he made paintings that were as beloved by the masses as they were derided by vanguard critics for their realist depictions of rural Maine and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

“I called it the ‘Wyeth Curse,’” said Wanda Corn, a historian of American art, referring to the belief that his work was unmodern and more akin to illustration, and his audience “artistically and politically conservative.”

That curse is fading with time, Corn said. On the occasion that they surface at auction, Andrew Wyeth’s top works reliably fetch seven figures.

His artistic legacy does face a different obstacle today, however. “The market for Andrew Wyeth is just as steady as always within the same world of people who have always appreciated his work,” said Victoria Manning, whose gallery, Sommerville Manning, near Chadds Ford, handles the Wyeths’ work. “But right now, diversity is important to museums and a younger generation.”

In a 2017 assessment of his paintings of Black people in the Brandywine Valley, the historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw questioned the power imbalance in his representation of race, and also pointed out that in a handful of paintings he had darkened the skin tone of his white model, Helga Testorf, a Chadds Ford neighbor who posed for him in secret for more than a decade.

Betsy Wyeth’s shrewd management of her husband’s career shaped his popularity and financial success. She critiqued his paintings, wrote books about him, helped determine what to sell and cataloged every scribble. She also named many of his paintings, including the one that catapulted him to international stardom, “Christina’s World” (1948), which was inspired by a vision of their physically disabled, shut-in neighbor and friend Christina Olson. (Betsy Wyeth introduced them in 1939 and later posed for the picture.)

She also put her influence and resources to work on the islands. “They were her other man,” said Mary Landa, the longtime manager of the couple’s collection. Betsy Wyeth commissioned ecological research and preservation, and helped found the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine, the first advocacy group for the state’s vast archipelago.

She created pastures, dug out ponds, restored antique buildings — including a few salvaged from the mainland and reconstructed — and designed new ones, often using the patinated bones of old ones. Sometimes she composed Wyeth-esque scenes to inspire her husband to paint. And sometimes he took the bait. His final work, “Goodbye,” 2008, shows Allen Island’s 19th-century sail loft, which Betsy Wyeth salvaged from the mainland and turned into a gallery, as a ghostly figure sails out of the picture plane.

A very small 19th-century house on Benner where two fishing families once lived served as Andrew Wyeth’s studio. Their nearby residence, meanwhile, a reproduction of an 18th-century cape house, is decorated sparingly with country antiques and folk art with the stark restraint that marks his paintings. One wonders if Betsy Wyeth originated the aesthetic.

Reproductions now hang in place of the original temperas and watercolors that once hung here every summer. Paintings from the couple’s collection are now in the holdings of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, which is announcing details of the estate settlement in March, West said. It’s unlikely that a trove will hit the market like it did when the Wyeths sold Andrew’s pictures of Testorf.

Betsy Wyeth did leave some parting gifts, including 27 works by the three generations of Wyeth men, Jamie, Andrew, and N.C., to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, one of the larger repositories of Andrew Wyeth’s work, along with the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford.

It has yet to be seen how Colby’s arrangement might affect the Colby College Museum of Art, which has a strong American art focus, with nearly 400 works by James McNeill Whistler, around 900 by Alex Katz and six by Andrew Wyeth.

But as the islands change hands, the Wyeth story is moving far beyond museum walls. Greene said that he’d like to be in a position where every student uses the island campus.

For Jamie Wyeth it’s bittersweet. “It’s very tough for me because I spent so much time out here,” he said. “But I think it’s a wonderful future for the islands.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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