♪♪ ♪♪ -He paints the soul, not just an image.
-That was what was amazing about my father.
He saw things that other people just wouldn't see.
[ Creaks ] -He had almost a painful sensitivity.
-The abstraction in his pictures.
The fantastic compositional sense.
And the toughness in them.
[ Pencil scratching ] In some ways the sadness, the meditations on death and nature... [ Thunder rumbles ] ...they're so 20th century.
-There's a darkness to Andrew Wyeth's work.
There's a drama.
-If you really look at his work, it's pretty scary stuff.
It's kind of like a Robert Frost poem.
You could say it's some horse in the woods with a sleigh and the snow, but really read it, it's a hell of a lot more than that.
-Make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
And you realize that something more is going on in the world.
♪♪ [ Bird caws ] ♪♪ [ Bird caws ] ♪♪ -Andrew Wyeth is one of the most highly regarded of American painters, if not most.
-Andrew Wyeth, leading American artist, is honored at the White House.
-This is the Whitney Museum in New York.
Normal daily attendance of art lovers, 500.
For a recent Wyeth exhibit, the average was 5,000 a day.
Attendance records were broken in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, too.
-In the '60s, Andrew Wyeth was the very top artist.
He was the artist people talked about.
-There is something in Wyeth that appeals to the uninitiated and the connoisseur alike.
He has a mass audience that may be greater than any other living artist ever had.
-In a way, his popular following was a curse.
-He had a huge audience, he had many collectors, and he was criticized for that.
-Poor Andrew Wyeth.
He has committed the final sins against the art establishment.
People like his work, and he's making money now instead of 400 years after his death.
-There were lines around the block at the Whitney, but that was also the kiss of death.
♪♪ -I first met the Wyeths in the early '70s.
I came out to Chadds Ford to meet Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, and found both of them very interesting people.
I think I somehow thought Andrew Wyeth would be more of a bumpkin, or a hermit or a farmer type, but what I found was somebody who served me the strongest cocktail I'd had in a long time, who made me laugh, and I found his wife beautiful, but also very clearly, I was going to have to win her approval, because she wanted only the best for Andrew Wyeth.
But I also came away thinking this is a much more complicated and interesting artist than I think I know from what's been written about him in the past.
♪♪ -One thing that stands out about Andrew Wyeth's work in contrast to the work of most of his contemporaries is that he grew up and lived in two places and two places alone during a long and productive life as an artist -- Chadds Ford... [ Bell clangs ] ...Port Clyde and Cushing.
The places that define his life were these two rural communities.
New York was the center of the art world.
That was not Andy's world.
-Painting to me is a matter of truth and... maybe of memory.
♪♪ -He had an extraordinary childhood.
Most artists struggle to find themselves as artists.
Wyeth was raised from childhood to be an artist -- Protected, cultivated.
I think of him like an Olympic athlete.
N.C. Wyeth, his dad, developed him, trained him, encouraged him.
-He taught me everyday living, seeing things around me.
Seeing the imagination of what you can make out of nothing.
-N.C. Wyeth was a famous classic illustrator.
He painted big, bold illustrations.
Scribner's Books was one of his major clients.
He churned out all the classics -- 'Robinson Crusoe,' 'The Boy's King Arthur.'
-He and his wife ended up having a family of five children.
There were three girls and two boys.
It was a very creative family.
Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew would become painters, Nat, a chemical engineer, and Ann, a composer.
-N.C. Wyeth thought that creative adults retained the spirit of childhood.
-N.C. had an ability to transform ordinary occurrences into bigger and better drama than they might have held themselves.
-The Christmases that he created for his children.
He would dress as Santa Claus.
It wasn't the traditional St. Nick that we know.
And he had a rather grotesque mask.
-Old Kris, as we called him, was to me a terrifying man.
He was a big man.
And I remember when I was about 8 years old lying in bed and we heard stamping feet on the top of the roof.
And I was terrified... to the point that I wet the bed.
I just tell you that story 'cause that's how he believed in exciting our imaginations.
-N.C. Wyeth built this studio, which is literally 25 steps away from the house.
-The studio was full of props that N.C. Wyeth needed as an illustrator.
There are swords. There are guns here.
There were a lot of costumes -- Robin Hood, King Arthur.
So these were all available to the children.
-And I made up my own stories of what was happening around me.
These hills became Sherwood Forest, the English countryside, or the battlefields of France.
All these imaginary things floated through my mind.
[ Bird calling ] ♪♪ -One of the things that most fascinated Andrew Wyeth was the amount of World War I objects that were here in the studio.
N.C. Wyeth saved a lot of photographs of the battlefields in France, the trenches, villages that had been totally bombed.
[ Projectiles whistling, explosions ] [ Gunfire ] -N.C. Wyeth also had in the studio boxes of stereo cards, two images taken by a dual camera.
He would put these in a hand-held machine, the two images on the card would come into focus, so you would have this amazing 3-D image in front of you.
[ Propeller whirring, gunfire ] Really, the horror of the war is absolutely displayed in these images.
Young Andrew Wyeth would sit in the studio here and page through them.
[ Explosions, gunfire ] -He collected these small soldiers which were made in Germany -- and German soldiers and American soldiers.
-I can look at those soldiers and remember the names of practically every one of them, make up my own stories.
♪♪ -'The Big Parade,' the movie by King Vidor, which he saw as a child, he was deeply influenced by that film.
[ Bombs whistling ] [ Loud explosions ] I, myself, watched it at least 30 times with him.
He watched it probably over 200 times.
So, you know, that's kind of more than just liking a movie.
-The French girl trying to find him in the crowd, and the motion of carriages going, and her figure there.
I thought it was very dramatic leaving her lone figure there against that rather -- that painted background.
But interesting, what you can do with almost nothing.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -This is the house where my father met my mother.
Ma's father was a newspaper editor.
And he had heard of N.C. Wyeth, and he called upon him in Port Clyde.
And when he was there, he met my father, and he told my father, he said, 'You know, I've got three attractive daughters.'
So, my father, on his birthday, a few days later, drove over here, knocked on the door, and met my mother.
-Betsy said, 'You know, Mary, when I was being courted by Andrew Wyeth, it was a wild, passionate courtship.
I received letters from him every day.
Sometimes two a day.
They had drawings in them, and I came home and we were married.
And then we went up to Maine.
And we had fun on a boat for a little while, and then -- pshoo -- right back into the studio.
And I realized I came second to his paintings.
And I had to choose to be with him or not.'
♪♪ -My father had absolutely zero interest in money or possessions.
And so she took all those elements out of his work.
I think, when he started to have a degree of success and whatnot, she made sure that it wasn't going to impinge on what he wanted to do, and all he wanted to do was paint.
-Andrew Wyeth would not be Andrew Wyeth without Betsy.
-At the young age of 18 years old, Betsy became Andrew's manager.
-She was self-taught.
When he had a dealer, Robert Macbeth, it's interesting to see some of the early letters of this young 18-, 19-year-old questioning the commission that they were paying on some of Andy's work.
-She was the one that was very strict on him, forced him to, as she would say, 'work on it until it couldn't be better.'
I think that charged him.
-He was very dependent on her eye.
-He would bring a painting home and show it to her proudly and hang it on the wall in the mill, and they would work on a title together.
-What a remarkable partnership my mother and father were.
I mean, they both were two halves of this remarkable whole.
♪♪ -I am just stunned by his technical expertise.
He is such a fabulous draftsman.
-To see his hands actually go through a drawing, he was like a conductor with a symphony.
-Andy could paint the wind.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -When Andrew Wyeth's work was first seen, he had a watercolor show in 1937, when he was all of 20 years old that is said to have sold out in a couple of days.
-He was a bright and rising young star.
-For the first 10 years or so of his exhibiting life, he was an artist to keep your eye on.
He had very high success in selling, but also critical success.
♪♪ -My father meant a great deal to me, and we had a marvelous time together, not just as a father but as someone to talk to.
And I think having him taken away so quickly and abruptly, it really jolted me.
[ Train wheels clacking ] [ Train whistle blows ] [ Train rumbling ] ♪♪ -He was up in Maine when N.C. was killed.
[ Bell tolls ] The day of the funeral, Andy wanted to see his father, wanted to spend some time alone with him.
And Andy said to me, 'I went into that room.
The windows were open, and I saw the light come across my father's face, and the wind out the windows blowing the leaves.'
♪♪ Tears are starting to well up as if he's reliving it.
He says, 'I had to do that -- to spend time with him.
And seeing the beauty of the wind, the light across his face.
This is what I'm trying to tell you.
Paint your life history, do the things that mean something to you.'
And I'm crying now, and he's crying.
'Do the things that are your own.'
'Paint your life.'
♪♪ -I think that it changed me from just painting pictures into painting a reality with an edge, with a meaning.
His death really gave me a meaning to paint.
It's a strange thing.
♪♪ -Andy explained this one time early, early on, coming up over the hill and you see this little farm.
And he felt like, you know, he was in Switzerland, just seeing this little farm nestled from the hill.
There's an intimacy about this place, there's a magic, the excitement of the unknown.
-This farm, he'd walk over here from our house, which is just over the hill, and just disappear into the Kuerner world.
-The Kuerners were tremendously forbearing neighbors in that they just let Andy Wyeth come and go, like a ghost.
I mean, he liked it that way.
-Growing up you would see this figure coming in and out, which would be Andy, observing him living his life, and him observing us living ours.
-He didn't really want to upset their daily life.
And they just let him creep through the house and then disappear.
I think he really enjoyed that voyeuristic aspect.
It was fabulous freedom for him, and a sense of his own domain, where he could be like a fly on the wall and watch them.
-When I lost my father in an accident, right near where Kuerners lived, and I regretted so that I hadn't done his portrait.
And Karl reminded me of my father in many ways.
Karl was a much more Germanic-looking man, but they both had that tough quality, Germanic power.
♪♪ And I realized that here was my father still alive.
♪♪ -Karl is a man of hog-butchering and hunting, of guns and knives and no nonsense, a man of the land.
-He wasn't just a Pennsylvania farmer to me.
I mean, I'll be there alone in that house, and now, all of a sudden, a shot will ring out.
[ Gunshots ] And it's Karl maybe hunting deer or maybe he was just target-practicing.
And you'll go into his house and you'll see these rifles slung on the wall.
There's a military feeling.
-Karl was a former machine gunner in the German army.
And, all of a sudden, it was as if one of his toy soldiers had come to life, because there was Karl Kuerner with his helmet and his medals and his coat and his scars and his battle stories, willing, in his broken English, to speak to Andrew Wyeth.
-And that was totally part of Wyeth's imagination -- the violence that lurked in his past, that then somehow enacted itself in Karl as a hunter.
That latent violence fascinated Wyeth.
He always loved to sort of poke at the dark side.
-And I think that if you look at the paintings of Kuerners of mine, you'll begin to sense it's not a quaint farm where they work in the garden and they milk their cows.
When they slaughter a pig, it's -- it's brutal.
♪♪ And I was attracted by this.
♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] -There are very few places he did this in.
He never traveled. [ Goat bleats ] Never went to Europe, you know, to paint.
He wanted to totally tune in to something that he could comprehend and get deeper and deeper and deeper.
And then this -- And he'd get thrilled.
I mean, he would tell me he couldn't sleep at night, to get back there the next day to work on something.
I mean, we're talking about 50 years of it, you know?
Wouldn't you think he'd maybe look for another farm?
No, didn't interest him.
♪♪ And with Kuerner, even after death, he then did the painting of Karl lying on this hillside as a drift of snow.
♪♪ [ Wind blowing ] [ Waves washing shoreline ] ♪♪ -Maine, to Andy, was like the surface of the moon.
Harsh, but it was also...fundamental.
♪♪ -Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, there are big stone houses, big trees, and whatnot.
My father always said, which I think is absolutely true, that in Maine, it's as if a wind could come along and just -- wshhh -- blow everything away.
People are hanging on tenaciously.
And to my father, that contrast was important to him.
-To me, the appeal of Maine is utter simplicity.
The people that live here work off the land or the sea.
-The Olson House sits atop a hill, overlooking the water -- the Cushing peninsula.
The Olson House is a national historic landmark because of the work that one of America's most important artists did over a 30-year period.
-For a number of years, that's all I painted in Maine, were the Olsons.
I could just pour all my thoughts.
Imagination ran free because the house was full of ghosts of the past of New England.
I mean, it was unbelievable.
They were seafaring people, the Olsons.
-The Olsons were poor.
They were sustenance farmers.
Everyday life was an extraordinary challenge.
-Christina was not emotional outwardly.
She was perhaps as serene as anyone I have ever known.
And she had great poise and self-confidence, so that one forgot the fact that she was lame.
She -- There was no self-pitying in her.
-Christina Olson suffered from a still not entirely diagnosed neurological disease that gradually, over decades, deprived her of the ability to walk.
But by all accounts, she was a stubborn and proud woman who refused to use a wheelchair, and towards the later years of her life, literally had to drag herself around, inside and outside the house.
-I don't think she thought of herself maybe as a cripple.
I don't think she liked that word, and I don't like it either, to describe her.
She just accepted things as they were and made do with what she had.
-Andy first met the Olsons on his first date with his soon-wife-to-be Betsy James.
-She was a great friend of Betsy's, my wife.
They had known her as a little girl.
And I didn't have a studio at that time.
We were building a house in Cushing.
And I asked the Olsons whether I could use one of the upstairs rooms because it was deserted, and I did, and that was how it all started.
-I always think it's so interesting that my mother, young Betsy James, who was 17, she takes him to the Olson House.
It was hardscrabble existence in that house.
No electricity, no water, no refrigeration.
You know, she's sitting on stacks of newspapers that she'd urinate on.
It was a lot to take.
But he took to it like that, and -- and look what he produced from it.
-We had a marvelous time together.
Sometimes we wouldn't say a thing for hours, and then we'd talk.
She felt very easy with me and, I think, enjoyed it.
-And again, it's this world that my father then sort of morphed into, as he had done in Pennsylvania, I think, with the Kuerner farm.
And...it was magic.
♪♪ -I saw her crawling out to a little truck garden she had next to the house one day.
And it dawned on me, what a terrific, I mean... And I went home and made a quick notation of this idea of Christine in the field, the house in the background.
And several days went by, and this kept building in my mind.
-'Christina's World' is a picture that's actually kind of hard to look at anymore, because it's become such an icon that to come to it fresh is almost impossible.
But that, in a way, is a sign of its strength, that, over decades, people come back to it, generation after generation, and find it haunting.
Even people who don't really know the story of Christina.
-It's enjoyed because there's a spectrum of emotions that it can release.
And that might be loneliness, it might be yearning, it might be something that's lost that can never be seen or rescued again.
It can look like somebody's dream -- a nightmare, maybe even.
This woman seen from the rear, moving herself up towards a little haunted house that's on this very strong horizon.
-A woman longing for something.
Some people pick up that she's crippled.
Some people don't at all, and just think she's yearning.
-It's a very odd painting.
Everything is incredibly sharp focus.
It's this crystalline world.
I mean, here you have a wisp of her hair blowing, and then, up in the barn, you know, half a mile away, is a shadow of a swallow flying by.
You know, it sure ain't realism.
And that's what I think lifts it into just another world.
♪♪ ♪♪ -I grew up with a young colored boy who I played with for years.
He was really my closest companion as a small boy.
Lived over the hill.
And he was remarkable.
And I found he had great imagination -- much more than the white boys I knew.
-One of Andrew Wyeth's closest friends in childhood was David Lawrence, who was a young African-American boy, who brought him to this part of Chadds Ford.
The black community here was called Little Africa, which may sound charming now, but it really reminds us of an era when neighborhoods that were mostly populated by black people had derisive nicknames given to them by whites.
♪♪ It was because of this insider introduction Wyeth was able to access these people for portraits and for paintings.
♪♪ -I didn't paint them because they were black people.
I painted them because they were my friends.
And I've always felt that the blacks have been painted very poorly.
I'm not saying that I've done it well, but I think they've been caricatured.
Big lips, big eyes.
♪♪ -So, we're here at the ruins of Mother Archie's Church.
By the middle of the 20th century, it was being used as an African-American church.
The congregation dwindled to a number that really couldn't support it anymore.
And it was converted into a residence.
Different people that Wyeth painted lived for a time in the church, as they did in different makeshift spaces around the area.
-We got along the same as sisters and brothers.
In this place you call Chadds Ford, we got along the same as sisters and brothers.
Andy painted a lot of colored people's pictures around here.
A lot of 'em.
♪♪ -James Loper was mentally challenged, and he would take these long, rambling walks through the countryside around the Wyeth compound.
-This James Loper painting, 1950.
His clothes were all old and fishhooks, and he was looking up to the left.
Over his head was a sickle, and over the sickle was a white sky.
And unless you were stupid, you knew what he meant.
I think that's symbolic of the condition of the black man in the white world.
-Willard Snowden was a hard-luck alcoholic drifter.
The Wyeths gave Snowden a place to live in the old schoolhouse that had once been Andrew's studio.
-He'd been around here, living in my studio for a year.
I'd made a lot of drawings of him to get through to this man, who was a remarkable man, had a little problem of drinking wine.
-Snowden was an alcoholic.
And he constantly needed to feed that disease.
And Andrew was really amenable to that, sometimes using liquor as a way to get Snowden to sit for him.
He would promise to drive him to the package store, before or after those sittings.
This is a complicated thing.
I think that this was emblematic of how Wyeth treated people around him, treated his subjects, treated his friends.
He was nonjudgmental.
He didn't try to change them or set them on a more 'correct' path.
He thought of these people as folks who were struggling with various challenges.
In paintings of Snowden, sometimes we see the ravages of alcohol directly affecting his body.
We can see him in these slightly compromised situations.
Wyeth painted him without his knowledge, occasionally.
Wyeth both does a really beautiful thing in showing his subjects as they are, but it's also sometimes really painful to look at when you know the stories of these people's lives.
He was really interested in finding the dignity that his subjects had, and expressing it, no matter how difficult their lives were.
♪♪ Andrew Wyeth was in an important 1940s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, called 'American Realists and Magic Realists.'
♪♪ -He was accepted among the avant garde.
His work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art.
He was seen as a magic realist.
-His big moment was when the Museum of Modern Art decided to buy a painting by him.
That was in '49.
Of course, that was 'Christina's World.'
♪♪ So, this looked, at the moment, that Andrew Wyeth was entering into dialogue with all the great modern masters that the Museum of Modern Art collected, and he was being integrated into what was seen as the most important collection of contemporary art in this country.
♪♪ -I want to express my feelings, rather than illustrate them.
♪♪ Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.
♪♪ -There comes a moment, mostly in the '60s and '70s, where abstract art becomes the definition of what contemporary art is.
-Modern artists don't try to mirror or illustrate the new, complex world.
But like the artists of any age, they cannot help expressing the basic assumptions of their time.
-It's the era of de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock.
-I don't work from drawings or colored sketches.
My painting is direct.
-It's always been the responsibility of an artist to examine what is in the world at this moment.
An artist can't afford to be a sentimental commentator.
-And in that climate, Andrew began to look old-fashioned.
-But some very few artists still find a means of personal expression in the traditional and the familiar.
Such a painter is Andrew Wyeth.
-In the art world, Andrew Wyeth was thought of as a regionalist or sort of a down-home painter.
Maybe just the populism of it, you know?
Because he was so popular.
-There was a sense that he was easy, that the reason he gathered these mass audiences for his exhibition was because he was accessible.
Members of that audience could understand his art and be moved by it without having to work very hard.
-That's when critics really started to slam him, that, 'Oh, he's this popular with the common man, then he can't really be taken seriously.'
-'Christina's World' -- the painting hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a million people a year look at it.
-There was also this sense that Wyeth played to his audience, that he wasn't subtle enough or nuanced enough.
-Is it possible for an artist himself to say how he would like to be described, if you could write the definitive statement?
-It's very hard to put it into words, but I'd say my whole aim is to try to do a portrait of the things that emotionally mean a great deal to me.
-I don't feel he's a 20th-century artist.
He doesn't leave anything up to your own imagination.
-It's like a typical poster artist.
Beautiful pictures, but no emotional feeling.
♪♪ -I came up with this word for the critical dispute.
I would call it the Wyeth Curse.
It was people judging him without looking at him.
And also people judging his audience as if somehow the audience that went to Andrew Wyeth would not be the audience that would then turn around and go see an exhibition by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning.
-When 'Groundhog Day' was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it was the highest price ever paid for a contemporary artist.
That almost created a certain kind of resentment, among bohemian artists who were starving in garrets, that Wyeth was so successful, that he was making thousands of dollars for realist paintings.
It somehow rubbed against the grain.
And so where Wyeth had actually been swimming along with all these other painters, happily, he suddenly was made into an opposition.
It wounded him, and he really was driven into retreat.
And what he did was run to Chadds Ford and to Maine and just make his own world for himself.
♪♪ -The enviable thing about painting is that you can continue to paint. It really has no real effect.
It's not like theater, where they close the theater, film, I mean, you know, bad reviews and so forth.
He kept on painting, which, of course, drives the critics mad.
♪♪ [ Wind blowing ] -I remember, one time, I was out there in Chadds Ford.
I get there early, and I look out the window of the granary, and I see Andy walking in the snow.
And I see him stop, and he's looking down.
And he looks down at this dead deer in the snow.
And he's just looking at it for 10 minutes.
He looks, his hands behind his back, the way he always walked, and he looked down.
And eventually... he walked back, got in his Jeep, drove on to the studio.
♪♪ -He's really an artist who works from memory.
And I think it's a mischaracterization of him to just call him a realist.
He doesn't operate like a camera.
He's making stuff up. He's manipulating reality.
He always admired the abstract expressionists and felt kinship with them.
♪♪ Looking at his work, you can see the splashiness, the expressiveness of his work, that has a lot in common with Franz Kline.
♪♪ Number two, there is this surrealistic bent, which is deeply modern, and then there's a very strong abstract style that he's working with.
If you look at a painting like 'River Cove,' which is really organized like a Mark Rothko -- big simple shapes, the sense of the two-dimensional pattern on the surface of the painting.
-One of the awful things the critics say is that he paints every blade of grass.
It's like Jackson Pollock.
If you get up close to it, it is not every blade of grass.
It's a strange woven pattern.
-He was tapping into the rhythms of nature, so he looked at the grass, he got it, it was just -- pop, pop, pop, pop, pop -- the brush just danced across the surface of the painting.
-I don't think people begin to realize how complicated his compositions are.
♪♪ He can often do things off-center.
He can have a house out on the left, with just fields to the right.
Or the famous one of the boy running down the hill, where you've got all that emptiness, and then this little energetic, dark figure that is racing from the hill.
His aerial views, his worm-eye views, his ways of featuring windows and doors up close, so that it's a frame within a frame.
He would say, over and over again, that he liked to turn his paintings upside down and judge the composition by what he saw.
And if it didn't have the strength of composition, then it wasn't yet a good painting.
-When you're looking at these paintings, I think you have a sense of unease, almost, of restlessness, of depth, even if you don't know the stories.
This is the Kuerners' kitchen.
'Groundhog Day' was begun in this room, and it started with him having lunch here and just seeing the fall of light, the sunshine across the wallpaper.
That just struck his imagination.
And as he himself later said, 'I left and went up on the hill and sat on the hill and looked down on the house and started to make sketches from memory.'
-And I sat up there, and I began to think of that kitchen way down below.
And that's when I began to dream about what I wanted.
I wanted you to feel the enclosure of the building and yet the country outside.
-So, after imagining the whole concept, he came back.
By this time, Karl had gone.
And he started to sketch Mrs. Kuerner seated by the windowsill, and the family dog, Nellie.
They became part of this galaxy of the painting that he gradually simplified.
He made dozens and dozens of drawings as he tried to think about, 'What is the key image here?'
And it boiled down to just the empty table waiting for Karl to come home.
-Karl was off at a farm sale, but there was his place, set.
It's more of a portrait of Karl than almost if it had been him being there, you know?
Knives were very important to him, as a man.
I mean, cutting up animals, and he always carried a knife with him.
I think there was a fork there, but that didn't interest me, 'cause I wanted to express this real person.
-That's that sense of imminence in the painting.
And then there's this strange story of the dog -- you know, the nasty dog. It was a guard dog.
-The log outside of the window with that tooth, like the fangs of the dog, really became the dog so that I could eliminate the dog.
I realized that I was overtelling my story, because there were the sharp teeth of that German shepherd.
-So, if you're looking out the window of the painting, there's this scary log staring at you that looks like it's about to come charging into the kitchen.
That sense of violence in the very dog and in the Karl Kuerner who's not there anymore is part of the restlessness of this painting, because on the one hand, it's so serene, and then, the more you look at it, the more there are these unsettling aspects that can't really be explained.
And they're part of that distillation of how he came to make the image.
-American artist Andrew Wyeth, who is known for powerful paintings of tenderness and mystery, turns out to have kept the biggest mystery so well.
-For 15 years, Helga was the secret occupation of America's best-known living artist.
-The art world along with the general public and even Wyatt's wife were stunned.
-I think it was a scandal partly because he'd kept all of this work secret.
And everybody was titillated by the idea that he had a whole body of work that he was not telling his wife about, not telling the rest of the world about, and that there were a lot of nudes involved and a beautiful young woman.
So that, in itself, was a kind of soap opera.
-The day that it broke, we had 'USA Today,' 'Time,' 'Newsweek' just zeroing in on the farm here and wanting to know all about this.
-A large body of work on one subject... -Over and over, he drew her.
-You had asked about what Chadds Ford was like.
It wasn't as wild as Maine.
-The Wyeths have not explained the mystery.
-They went out to their island to get away, and there were helicopters going over.
♪♪ -To an outsider looking in, there's a story unbeknownst to them that draws them in like a magnet.
-Just the daring of this show.
The explicitness of some of the images.
-And I think the show is sensational.
I don't care what the critics say.
-That story was then twisted into a manipulation.
-There is endless speculation that it was all a publicity stunt.
-He was accused of having done the whole thing in order to create headlines, and that the secret was not a secret, it was a conspiracy.
-I don't know if I told you about him sharing with me why he did the Helga paintings.
♪♪ He said, 'I needed to be away from Betsy and have some space.'
-He was so happy not to ever pay bills, not to ever sell prints.
Betsy took care of all of that.
Betsy wanted to see whatever he painted that day, do the catalogue, number it, and so forth.
-Why did you keep the paintings a secret?
-I'd been painting houses, barns, and all of a sudden, I saw this girl, and I said, 'My God, if I could get her to pose, she personifies everything I feel.
And that's it.
I'm not going to tell anyone about this.
I'm just going to paint it.'
-He wanted to fulfill his soul.
He needed just to do that for himself.
He was always producing. No artist wants to be taken for granted that you produce -- produce for the sake of producing.
You'll never, never produce anything good if you don't have something you paint for yourself.
♪♪ -When word of the Helga collection came out, that was really shocking to her.
She looked at me, and she said, 'Did you know?'
And I said, 'No. I had no idea.'
♪♪ 200 drawings and watercolors.
The rest were framed temperas.
I kept seeing these and looking at her, and looking at her looking at the paintings, and thinking, 'What is she thinking?
How can she separate her emotion from the real appreciation of the paintings?'
-It unsettled her, the fact that I never told her.
And it still bothers her.
But she realizes that she's living with a man that's wrapped up in my painting.
-Meanwhile, Helga felt betrayed, because he promised her that he would not let them out.
-How prepared can you get?
You don't know what's going to happen, you know?
I was never made for the public.
I really wasn't.
♪♪ -So, you have two very different personalities.
Betsy was extremely controlling.
Helga was extremely adaptable.
If he wanted to go down the ravine in the winter -- One time he told me she carried a dead deer up a hill.
So she would just do whatever he said.
Betsy would argue.
-He took what I had to say, and I took what he had to say.
It's a mutual thing.
You sense it, what he needs.
There was no question about it. You just did it naturally.
That's a gift.
-It was something that I was doing, and my imagination -- I painted every minute.
♪♪ -Being able to paint Helga gave him all of this magnificent energy he never had before.
He was actually able to double the work.
-I was a force.
Don't you see? I gave him confidence.
I didn't have any doubts.
-Many of the things he was doing concurrently are related to these Helga works.
♪♪ -Betsy -- she has a sense of order.
She can't stand chaos.
You have a collection over 15 years, and she always wants to know what came first, second, third, fourth.
What helped her deal with this whole thing was to put everything in order.
And that was the only thing that grounded her.
She was so big to rise above it and really appreciate the works for what they were.
♪♪ -The Helga pictures have some extraordinary, beautiful paintings.
They are not only fabulous, in terms of their technique, but the composition, the subject matter, they are really striking pictures.
So I think they're some of his finest paintings.
There's still, of course, an erotic story that's unavoidable.
That's potent in these pictures.
But I think we can also see them as great paintings.
-I think every painting has a mystery to it that only the artist and the subject know... that will never be shared in reality.
-We danced, and we laughed at the whole world together.
I think he rediscovered the whole world in himself.
♪♪ ♪♪ -When you know something and feel it and have a love for it, my God, do it.
Don't let it go by.
♪♪ -Andrew Wyeth was an artist 24 hours a day.
He spent the entire day walking, exploring, sketching, thinking.
-It's like you're being a child again.
You can do what you want, and you can do what you love.
How many people in life get to do what they love to do?
-I've never met anyone else that was alive in the world the way he was.
-He painted up until the end.
♪♪ Oh, gosh.
When he was dying in bed, in the upper bedroom, someone said, 'Come here, look.'
And he was asleep, but his hand... ♪♪ -He was drawing, in the dream.
♪♪ -His final words to me, when we were saying goodbye and I leaned down and he pulled me in and looked at me right in the eye and said, 'Give them hell.'
-I'm so glad he lived past 2000, because it was a sea change.
And they had a 'Rediscovering Andrew Wyeth' session at the big national convention of art historians.
And the young people threw aside all the horrible criticism of their seniors, rebelled, and looked at Andrew Wyeth.
He got to participate in nine years of that, of hearing people look at him anew.
-I think this is a moment for not only the public to rediscover him, but for art historians to really rethink him.
-I think we've moved beyond the easy opposition of realism and abstraction which I think was the story back in the 1960s.
And I think it's now possible to see him as just a different way of being modern.
♪♪ -He painted his own backyard.
When you paint what you know and what you know with truth, that love is universal.
-Wyeth's pictures always capture people.
They stare at them and just roam around in them.
When we did the exhibition at the museum, it actually was not unusual to find people in tears in front of the paintings, and paintings that weren't overtly sad.
It opened up memories in people, and I think that's one of the powers in his work, is that the emotion that he banks into the picture allows people to unlock emotion of their own.
♪♪ -If you look at the light on the corner of the wall in the window in 'Groundhog Day,' there is nothing, anywhere, written in the history of art, about art -- no words compare to what he did.
♪♪ That sunlight traveled eight minutes from the sun, came through the atmosphere, through that window, and struck the side of that window frame and that wall.
♪♪ And he got it.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Narrator: 'Wyeth' is available on DVD.
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♪♪ Listen to the American Masters Podcast at pbs.org/americanmasters, featuring a blend of original interviews and selections from our archive.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪