Brandywine Beauty

Touring: The Pennsylvania-Delaware region is lovely to look at -- and rich in the history of the Wyeths and the du Ponts.

May 07, 2000|By Robin T. Reid | Robin T. Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If N.C. Wyeth came back to life and surveyed his beloved Brandywine Valley today, he would likely be pleased. The wooded hills and lush meadows that ripple through southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware must be as beautiful now as they were when the artist settled here almost 100 years ago.

The valley is named for a broad creek of gray-green water that meanders about 50 miles from its headwaters near the Welsh Mountains of Pennsylvania before flowing into the Christina River in Wilmington. While people have lived here for centuries, either to farm the rich soil or harness water power for mills, much of the land remains undeveloped.

A weekend tour through the Brandy-wine Valley is an ideal way to get to know Wyeth, to see the landscape that inspired some of his best-known illustrations for books such as "The Black Arrow" and "Treasure Island." A few of those are in the Brandywine River Museum near his home in Chadds Ford, Pa.

Then, after a day of art and winding country roads, pamper yourself in the plush rooms of the Inn at Montchanin Village or the Hotel du Pont. The first is a restored 19th-century hamlet in the heart of horse country a few miles north of Wilmington; the second, a grand Italianate building with its own theater in the heart of town.

The presence of the Wyeths and another well-known American family, the du Ponts, pervades the Brandywine Valley. In 1800, a young Frenchman named Eleuthere du Pont decided he could make a good living milling gunpowder in the new United States. More than 100 years later, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) settled along the creek and established a dynasty of artists and inventors.

Both families have contributed a legacy of art, money and space to regional museums. Winterthur, Hagley and Longwood Gardens are built around du Pont estates. The Brandywine Museum stands adjacent to the Wyeth homestead and studio. In addition to the museum, the works of N.C., son and daughters Andrew, Henriette and Carolyn, and his grandson Jamie, are sprinkled throughout Wilmington, including the Hotel du Pont.

Chadds Ford

Using the Wyeths and du Ponts as guides, my husband and I began our expedition in Chadds Ford, which straddles U.S. 1 just north of the Pennsylvania line. N.C. fell in love with the village while studying art with Howard Pyle in 1902. The well-known illustrator's school was in Wilmington, but he frequently entertained his students at his summer home in Chadds Ford.

"The country is elegant, very hilly, almost mountains, and very picturesque," N.C. wrote to his mother back home in Needham, Mass., that fall. "The houses are made out of either stone or brick, and not a stone wall is to be seen."

In a letter to his brother in 1903, Wyeth wrote, "This country is much like New Hampshire in miniature, full of winding brooks, splashing and sparkling over stones and rocks, winding its way into dark mysterious woods, there flowing along with a somber stillness as if resting after its merry dances down the hills."

N.C. could have been describing the view from the Brandywine River Museum, a renovated Civil-War era gristmill overlooking the water. It's a good-sized place: three floors with four galleries, a cafeteria-style restaurant with a waterfront view and a decent gift shop. About a quarter-mile away is the Wyeth family's house and N.C.'s studio.

Carolyn Wyeth lived here until she died in 1994. Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie have studios in the Chadds Ford area, where both spend part of the year. Andrew, 82, and his wife, Betsy, help rehang exhibitions at the museum.

"Andy's very down to earth," says Halsey Spruance, the museum's director of public relations. "He loves to paint and loves to talk about it."

Andrew's paintings fill a gallery. Next to most pieces, curators have placed small cards of quotes from the artist about his work -- a great device for bringing life to the bleak, meticulously rendered scenes.

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape -- the loneliness of it -- the dead feeling of winter," Andrew explained in a letter to Life magazine writer Richard Meryman, who became the family's Boswell. "Something waits beneath it -- the whole story doesn't show. I think that anything like that people always feel is sad. Is it because we've lost the art of being alone?"

Across the hall, N.C.'s paintings all but leap from their frames. The strapping, barrel-chested man who once lifted a Model-T Ford out of a mud hole had a flair for drama, evident in his self-portrait at the gallery's entrance.

The disturbing "Blind Pew" (from "Treasure Island," 1911) is a stark silhouette on a lonely road at night. In what N.C. called his best picture, "From an Upper Platform ..." miners toil away in an ominous snow bank, dyed a shimmering royal blue by moonlight.

"I came from a father," Andrew told biographer Meryman years later, "who was blood and guts."

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