It is with great sadness that the trustees of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art announce the death of Betsy James Wyeth on April 21, 2020. Betsy was a catalyst in the creation and opening of the Brandywine River Museum of Art and was a visionary in the worlds of art and architecture. She was also a published author, art collector and a driving force in the career of her husband, artist Andrew Wyeth—serving as his muse, business manager and chief archivist of his work. Together with Andrew, she was a major benefactor in the fields of art and education.
As soon as it re-opens to the public, the Brandywine River Museum of Art is planning to honor the life of Betsy Wyeth with a memorial tribute display of 20 Andrew Wyeth works, depicting his wife and muse, created over the decades.
Born in East Aurora, New York, on September 26, 1921, Betsy Merle James was the daughter of the late Merle James and Elizabeth Browning James. The youngest of three daughters, Betsy was a graduate of East Aurora High School in New York and briefly attended Colby Junior College in New London, New Hampshire. Her family vacationed in, and ultimately moved to, Cushing, Maine, where at age 17 she met Andrew Wyeth on July 12, 1939—his twenty-second birthday. The couple was married the following year on May 15, 1940, and moved to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Their marriage spanned nearly seven decades before Andrew’s death in 2009.
Early on in their marriage, Betsy took up the role as Andrew’s business manager. She made a significant contribution to the study of American art. Guided by Josephine Hopper—wife of American realist painter Edward Hopper—she began keeping extensive records that would become the basis for the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné. After the death of her father-in-law, N. C. Wyeth, she compiled and was editor of The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, a book that spurred a reassessment of his career. In 1976 she published the first book on her husband’s work, Wyeth at Kuerners, followed by Christina’s World in 1982. She also worked with a young group of filmmakers to produce the award-winning documentary, Andrew Wyeth Self Portrait: Snow Hill, in 1995.
Betsy and Andrew Wyeth founded the Wyeth Endowment for American Art, the precursor to the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, in 1968. It is now the third largest funder of exhibitions, publications and fellowships devoted to the study of American Art. Through its generosity were made possible major projects such as the research for, and publication of N. C. Wyeth: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings.
In the late 1960s, Betsy was a powerful force behind the creation of the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She encouraged George A. “Frolic” Weymouth, one of the founders of the Brandywine Conservancy in 1969, to purchase, renovate and transform a 19th-century gristmill along the Brandywine River into an art museum, and promised to lend works by all three generations of Wyeth artists—N. C., Andrew and Jamie, and other family artists such as Carolyn and Henriette Wyeth, Peter Hurd and John McCoy. The Museum opened to much success in 1971 and has since become internationally recognized for its collection of American art, most notably by the Wyeth family. Over the years, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth would donate many important paintings both to the Brandywine and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Following Andrew Wyeth’s death in 2009, Betsy generously gifted her husband’s studio to the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Andrew Wyeth Studio is open to the public seasonally for tours.
In addition to managing the business side of Andrew Wyeth’s career, Betsy had a passion for historic houses and architecture. With her keen eye and talent for design, Betsy exceled at restoring old buildings, including an old mill complex on the Brandywine River that she converted into the couple’s Pennsylvania home and studio. She was continually drawn to the Maine coast, where she and Andrew had spent much of their childhoods, and over decades they bought three islands—Southern, Allen and Benner. To Betsy, these islands served as a blank canvas where she could realize her creative potential and her dedication to preserving historic New England architecture. Her carefully curated interiors and groupings of buildings are depicted in many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and watercolors and were featured in magazines such as Architectural Digest.
A muse for her husband, Betsy is represented in several works by Andrew Wyeth, sometimes embodied only by a highly personal object or setting that reminded her husband of her presence. A candid and astute partner, Betsy played an important role in his career. As Andrew Wyeth commented in 1966 to his biographer, Richard Meryman, “Betsy galvanized me at the time I needed it,” adding "She’s made me into a painter that I would not have been otherwise. . . . she made me see more clearly what I wanted."
Along with her interests in architecture and design, Betsy was an avid collector of art, especially of folk art, and she was highly knowledgeable on Pennsylvania antiques. She was also heavily involved in the two communities in which she lived. Betsy was a founding member of the Chadds Ford Historical Society, inspired the creation of the Island Institute in Maine, and financed the launch of its Island Journal publication. In 1987 Betsy Wyeth founded Up East Incorporated, which supports environmental and ecological research, preservation and education in mid-coast Maine. Through her work with Up East Inc., Allen Island has transformed into a living learning laboratory and working waterfront. In partnership with Colby College, students and researchers now study ecology, chemistry, and cultural geography on the island.
Betsy James Wyeth is survived by her sons, Nicholas Wyeth and his wife, Lee, of Elkton, MD and Cushing, ME, and James “Jamie” Browning Wyeth, of Wilmington, DE and Tenants Harbor, ME; her granddaughter, Victoria Browning Wyeth, of Philadelphia, PA; as well as several nieces and nephews including Amy Cook Morey of the Wyeth Study Center in Rockland, ME.
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