Painting in a Winter Wonderland at the Brandywine River Museum of Art

Children and their parents experience Brandywine Christmas. Photo by Carlos Alejandro. 

By Ilene Dube

In all its starkness, winter was the favorite season of the painter Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009), one of the 20th century’s most popular American painters. Even today, exhibitions of his works draw large crowds to museums.

Wyeth described winter as a time when “you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling…” Wyeth’s landscapes of that season are both placid in their silence and haunting in their feeling of desolation. He has the ability to capture the nuanced shades of white, even when working in watercolor.

Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith described Wyeth’s landscapes, even those from the other three seasons, as “barren, wintry, usually sunless views of the woods, fields, and solitary houses” that have “provided so much in the way of khaki and olive drab, so little in the way of green grass or blue skies.” His subjects often paralleled those of the great black and white photographers, such as Walker Evans.

The Brandywine River Museum of Art celebrates winter in all its glory. A Brandywine Christmas offers everything from one of the world’s most extensive model train displays to carols concerts, a Polar Express read-aloud pajama party, holiday trees lovingly decorated with handmade ornaments, and holiday events and programs for all ages.

To round out the experience, the museum is exhibiting a selection of Wyeth’s winter paintings, including snowy scenes, through mid February. “He captures the many shades of snow,” says Curator Audrey Lewis. “This intimate exhibit is a new way of looking at his work, from a family collection that hasn’t been seen often, and not as a group.”

Wyeth achieved international acclaim while focusing on the land surrounding his homes in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—just a stone’s throw from the Brandywine River Museum—and in Maine. Surrounded by rural landscapes rich with natural beauty, he learned to look within his internal landscape to fulfill his wanderlust.

Andrew Wyeth Gallery at Brandywine River Museum. 

His father, N.C. Wyeth, who achieved fame illustrating tales of pirate adventures, took him on nature walks and trained him to see with sensitivity and identify with his subject emotionally. He taught him to paint the light and air around the subject, to paint the mystery.

“If you want something profound, the American countryside is exactly the place,” the younger Wyeth wrote. He discovered the complexities of the human condition and the fragile line between life and death.

Wyeth would spend late spring to late summer in Maine, returning to Chadds Ford for the winter months. His very last painting—titled Goodbye by his widow, Betsy—was executed in Maine.

Buckets, boats, boots, cloaks, and other vessels in Wyeth’s paintings leave a memory of absent owners and inhabit a human presence such that they become portraits without having a figure in the painting. Through open windows and doorways, a spirit enters or exits just as the breeze creates billows in the curtain.

Gaining the trust of neighbors, Wyeth would be given the keys to their homes, to enter at will to make sketches or watercolors. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing for more than five decades, the Chadds Ford farm of Karl and Anna Kuerner was at the heart of Andrew Wyeth’s artistic sphere in Pennsylvania. Deeply inspired by the landscape and people, Wyeth created hundreds of drawings, watercolors, and temperas depicting the farm and the Kuerners during these years.

“Wyeth had full rein of Kuerner farm, he was allowed to come and go as he pleased, to wander at night,” says Lewis. “They had a relationship that was personal and friendly, based on trust. They accepted him, just as the Olson family did in Maine.” (Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World, came out of his relationship with the Olson family.)

Andrew Wyeth Studio. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.

Groundhog Day, painted in 1959, is an example of a painting that is more about what’s not in the painting than what we see on the canvas. The final image consists of a white plate, cup and saucer, and a knife on a white clothed table, wallpaper, and a window to the outside where we see a jagged-tooth log. What started out as a painting of Karl Kuerner and his wife and dog in fact contains none of them. The painting depicts a sunny, peaceful winter kitchen, awaiting the farmer’s return. Karl, the master of the scary dog and obedient wife, is a fearsome man who eats only with a knife.

“He wanted to evoke Karl’s presence through other means,” says Lewis. “It’s a symbolic portrait. His presence is there even though his physical person is not. It is symbolic of his realm, and you can see his world through the kitchen window.”

In 1978, Karl is painted on the hill beyond which are the tracks where Wyeth’s father was killed when a train hit his car. Karl’s unclothed body appears to be melting into the season’s last patch of snow, yet also rising. His face bears the peaceful repose of death, and this painting probably refers to Wyeth’s father, as well.

“There is an undercurrent of death in his work,” says Lewis. “His subjects alluded to death.”

Wyeth worked in graphite, pencil, watercolor, and tempera, a process that involved mixing pigment with egg white and painstaking layering. He was attracted to the medium because of its earthiness, says Lewis. His earlier watercolors, especially those in Maine, were more colorful, with blues and purples, but after his father’s death, Wyeth’s palette grew muted. (Later, toward the end of his life, he returned to color.)

A reproduction of Groundhog Day can be seen in the Kuerner Farm, gifted to the Brandywine River Museum of Art by Karl and Anna’s son, Karl Jr., in 1999 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Tours of the farm, as well as the studios of N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth, are offered by the museum.

Visit www.brandywine.org/museum/tours/studio-tours.

To make the most of a visit to the Brandywine River Museum of Art and experience a Brandywine Christmas:

The Brandywine River Museum of Art’s model train display, a holiday family favorite since 1972, offers both toy and scale model trains made by Lionel, Williams, Atlas, Mike’s Train House, K-line, and others. With more than 1,000 pieces— including locomotives, passenger and freight trains, and trolleys, all moving along 2,000 feet of track—the annual holiday exhibition of the Brandywine Railroad is one of the largest modular model railroad installations in the world.

Photo by Carlos Alejandro

Critter ornaments that have been handmade using natural materials such as pine cones, acorns, egg shells, flowers, and seed pods, each with its own personality in the shape of cats, dogs, reindeer, bears, angels, and stars, have been a Brandywine tradition for more than 40 years. Sales of these ornaments, made by volunteers, benefit the Volunteers’ Art Purchase Fund, along with art education and programming. The sale begins Thursday, November 30, 5-9PM, and continues December 1, 2, and 3 from 9:30AM-5PM. Critters will also be available for sale in the museum shop from Monday, December 4, through Sunday, January 7, 2018.

Carols Concerts are on Sundays, November 26, December 3, 10, 17, and 31, 1 to 3PM, with international opera singer Peter Campbell, accompanied by pianist Matthew Jewell. Included with museum admission.

The Polar Express Read-Aloud Pajama Night takes place Thursday, November 30, 7-8PM. Children are invited to wear pajamas and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies as they delight in Chris Van Allsburg’s book about a trip to the North Pole. Tickets $15 adults; $8 children, includes museum admission.

The Children’s Christmas Party is another beloved Brandywine family tradition, this year on Wednesday, December 6, 6-8PM. Visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus and enjoy entertainment, costumed characters, face painting, model trains, antique dolls, trees adorned with hundreds of critter ornaments, and Cookie Land! Tickets $15, non-member adults; $5, non-member children ages 3-11; $12, member adults; free for member children and children under age 3.

Breakfast with the Trains on Saturdays, December 9 and 16, 8:30-10AM. All aboard as you join a behind-the-scenes visit with the Brandywine Railroad. Discover how the layout, one of the world’s largest, is created and the complicated multitasking it takes to keep everything running. This before-hours event includes a private tour of the trains in action with Brandywine Railroad engineers, with special activities for the youngest train fans and a continental breakfast in the museum’s Millstone Café. Children will receive a Brandywine Railroad souvenir; ages 3 and older accompanied by an adult are welcome. $20 members; $25 non-members.

Sing along as folksinger Rick Spencer presents familiar Christmas tunes from the Victorian age for A 19th Century Christmastide on Saturday, December 9, 11AM and 1PM. Included with museum admission.

Enjoy early access to the museum’s Brandywine Railroad display during PECO Sensory-Friendly Train Morning on Saturday, January 6, 2018, 8:30-9:30AM. Space is limited and registration is required. Complimentary museum admission.

The Terrific Trains family program takes place Saturday, January 6, 2018, 10AM to noon. See the Brandywine Railroad and create a colorful train to display at home. Included with museum admission.

The Brandywine River Museum of Art features an extensive collection of American art housed in a 19th-century mill building with a dramatic steel and glass addition overlooking the banks of the Brandywine. The museum is open daily from 9:30AM to 5PM (except Thanksgiving and Christmas day), and is located on Route 1 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Admission is $18 for adults; $15 for seniors ages 65 and over; $6 for students and children ages 6 and up; free for children 5 and younger and Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art members. For more information, call 610.388.2700 or visit brandywinemuseum.org.