Betsy James Wyeth, widow, collaborator and muse of Andrew Wyeth dies at 98

Apr 27, 2020
Betsy James Wyeth, widow, collaborator and muse of painter Andrew Wyeth, dies at 98

Betsy James Wyeth, the indomitable widow, collaborator and muse of painter Andrew Wyeth, died on April 21 at her home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She was 98.

She had been in declining health for years, her son Jamie Wyeth said in confirming the death.

The couple met in 1939 in Cushing, Maine, when she was 17 and he was 22. As the oft-told story goes, Betsy Wyeth’s father invited the handsome young painter to meet his three daughters.

He was taken with Betsy, the youngest, and she with him, and she tested her new beau by inviting him to meet the Olsons, a brother and sister who lived in a squalid but atmospheric farmhouse.

Christina Olson was paralyzed from the waist down, and it was Betsy Wyeth’s intention to see if Andrew Wyeth would be shocked by the Olson’s grim existence. As he said afterward, he was too focused on his future wife to pay much attention.

Years later, as he observed Olson crawl across the field to her house — a proud woman, she disdained the assistance of a wheelchair — he was moved enough to paint what would become one of the most famous images in the world, “Christina’s World.” (Andrew Wyeth would return to the house, and Olson, over and over again in his work.) It was Betsy Wyeth who named the painting, as she would with many more of his.

“That was her life’s work: my father and his work and giving him the freedom to paint,” Jamie Wyeth, who is also an artist, said of his mother. “She was my father’s severest critic. Mine, too.”

He added: “She was an incredible editor and would always tell him to take things out of paintings. My father liked to say that ‘Christina’s World’ would be better without the figure in it. But I think that idea came from her. I always felt her signature should be alongside his.”

Betsy Wyeth would go on to manage the business of Wyeth World, in the words of Joyce Stoner, the painter’s conservator and a professor of art conservation at the University of Delaware. Betsy Wyeth negotiated his commissions, organized shows and maintained his catalog raisonné.

She was also subject of many portraits, including “Maga’s Daughter,” which showed her in the vintage clothing she collected.

She liked to explain her role as that of a film director. She told Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth’s biographer: “It’s like I’m a director and I had the greatest actor in the world. I mean, what’s a director without an actor? So my role is unimportant.”

As Meryman wrote, Andrew Wyeth welcomed his wife’s oversight even as he chafed against it. “She’s made me into a painter I would not have been otherwise,” he said. But later on, he said, “it became hard to take.” As he told Stoner and others, “She rules me with a steel arm.”

Betsy Merle James was born on Sept. 26, 1921, in East Aurora, New York. Her mother, Elizabeth Browning, studied animal husbandry at Cornell and taught high school Latin. Her father, Merle Davis James, was an artist and printer.

She attended Colby Junior College in New Hampshire (now Colby-Sawyer College) for a year (because she had wanted to ski) and had planned to transfer to the University of Chicago to study archaeology when she was introduced to Andrew Wyeth. He proposed within a week of their meeting, and they married in 1940.

They settled in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where Andrew Wyeth had grown up, renting an old schoolhouse from his domineering father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, with whom Betsy Wyeth had a contentious relationship.

The elder Wyeth was said to have been jealous of her influence on his son and also, perhaps, of her role in elevating Andrew Wyeth’s fame, because very quickly Andrew Wyeth became more well-known than his father.

Yet long after N.C. Wyeth’s death in 1945, Betsy Wyeth collected his letters into a book, “The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945.” It was a gesture that was both a gift to her husband and an olive branch to his dead father, said Mary Landa, manager of the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection.

When a 19th-century grist mill was threatened by developers, Betsy Wyeth encouraged a neighbor, George Weymouth, who was a founder of the Brandywine Conservancy, the area’s land trust, to buy it and turn it into a museum. “If you build it,” she said, “we’ll put the pictures in it.”

Weymouth liked to say of Betsy Wyeth, “She had the tact of a general and the grace of a queen.”

Besides her son Jamie, Wyeth is survived by another son, Nicholas Wyeth, an art dealer, and a granddaughter.

In 2008, Betsy Wyeth bought an old sail loft that had been taken down years earlier to make way for a parking lot in Port Clyde, Maine. She had it put back together on one of the three islands in “Betsy’s Village.” It was a surprise birthday gift for her husband, yet another object for him to paint, and with a gallery inside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *