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Wyeth's world

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CHADDS FORD, Pa. -- Victoria Wyeth is the first to admit that she lacks her grandfather's talent for painting. But the youngest member of the famed Wyeth clan says she doesn't need an artist's eye to see the beauty of the bucolic valley he still calls home.

"I wake up early in the morning, when the sun is just coming up, and oh, my gosh, the light!" gushes Wyeth, 26, who grew up in hectic Manhattan but recently moved back to the family's hometown. "I remember the first time I woke up here on a snowy morning thinking, 'I'm in the middle of an Andrew Wyeth painting!'"

The younger Wyeth has just finished a talk at the Brandywine River Museum, nestled along a woodsy stretch of the Brandywine River, where many of her grandfather's most famous paintings of the area's snow-covered hills and weathered farmhouses reside. Outside, the last of autumn's leaves are falling, and another Wyeth winter is just around the corner. So, too, is a major celebration of her grandfather. And, no doubt, a new wave of Wyeth-inspired tourists.

Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, a key retrospective of the 88-year-old artist that made its debut last month at the expanded High Museum of Art in Atlanta, already is drawing renewed attention to the scenic Brandywine Valley, which stretches from the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania into Delaware. And with the traveling show arriving in nearby Philadelphia in March, the area is preparing to fete its native son like never before.

Both the Brandywine River Museum and the Delaware Art Museum, a few miles down the valley in Delaware, plan major Wyeth exhibits to coincide with the retrospective's four-month run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many of the area's country inns have unveiled Wyeth-themed packages, as have hotels as far as Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. And local restaurants are adding Wyeth-inspired recipes to their menus. One local winery even has launched a Wyeth wine.

The festivities come as the options for Wyeth-loving tourists grow in a valley long known for its grand du Pont estates and world-famous gardens. Just last year, one of the icons of Wyeth paintings, the picturesque Kuerner Farm, which appears in nearly 1,000 of his works, opened for tours. Now visitors can stand in the same spot Wyeth did in 1958 as he sketched Groundhog Day, the famous image of Karl Kuerner's kitchen that hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And they can gaze out the window at Kuerner Hill, the setting for the groundbreaking Winter, 1946, which belongs to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Wyeth grew up just over the hill from the farm, which is less than a mile from the Brandywine River Museum, and has been drawing there since his childhood. But the farm took on new meaning for him and his work in 1945, when his father, famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was killed by a train just a few hundred yards away. Andrew was 28.

A German connection

After the death, "Karl became like a second father to him," says guide Joanne Goebel, leading a tour group past the spruce-lined entryway where Wyeth painted The German, a well-known watercolor showing Kuerner in his World War I uniform.

Goebel points out that Kuerner Farm also is where Wyeth met Helga Testorf, Kuerner's German-born nurse, who would become his most famous model and, in 1987, a national sensation with the debut of The Helga Pictures at The National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Like Wyeth, who rarely gives interviews, Testorf continues to live nearby; they're often spotted over breakfast at Hank's Place, a local diner. Wyeth's son, the painter Jamie Wyeth, also lives in the area.

"Everyone is kind of low-key about them," says Sharon Silverman, a longtime resident and author of Brandywine Valley: The Informed Traveler's Guide, over a breakfast of grilled corn muffins at Hank's. "We all know where they live, but we don't tell anybody."

While visitors aren't guaranteed a Wyeth sighting (particularly in the summer, when the family decamps for Maine), almost every bend in the road around this historic valley, dubbed "chateau country" for its grand European-style estates, reveals another pastoral scene from one of Wyeth's brooding tempera landscapes.

Protected by the still-powerful hand of the du Pont family, which got its start making gunpowder along the Brandywine River more than two centuries ago, and the forward-thinking Brandywine Conservancy, which has saved more than 40,000 acres from development, the fertile valley remains an oasis of country charm. It has rebuffed the approaching urban sprawl of Wilmington, 10 miles to the south, and Philadelphia, 30 miles to the northeast.

This summer, Route 100, the winding lane that follows the river as it descends toward Wilmington, passing old stone barns, early-American farmhouses, horse-filled meadows and country estates, was named a National Scenic Byway, an honor also bestowed on nearby, antique-shop- lined Route 52.

"Very little has changed," says Jacques Amblard, the French-born general manager of The Inn at Montchanin Village, a charming, 28-room hideaway that occupies nine historic 19th-century homes along the river once used by du Pont powder mill workers. "It's as if the whole Brandywine Valley exists in another time."

The du Ponts have perpetuated the region's tranquil nature, found in so many Wyeth paintings, by preserving many of the grand estates the family built during the 19th century, when the Brandywine was their virtual fiefdom. Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur, which opened as a museum in 1951 and is one of the area's top attractions (and home to the nation's finest collection of American furniture and decorative arts), spreads over nearly 1,000 acres -- an area larger than New York's Central Park. Pierre S. du Pont's Longwood Gardens, which kicks off a centennial celebration in January after a $25 million renovation, is even bigger.

Yet it is the Wyeths, not the du Ponts, who have come to define the region for a new generation of Americans. N.C. Wyeth, who arrived in 1902 to study painting with Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustrators, was the first Wyeth to put the rolling countryside into his paintings. The trees of Sherwood Forest in Robin Hood, which the elder Wyeth famously illustrated, are not the oaks of England but the sycamores and silver beeches of the Brandywine.

Still, it is Andrew who has made the valley recognizable worldwide with his melancholic -- some would say sentimental -- wintry scenes of snow-swept, decaying fields bathed in dramatic light.

"A lot of people attribute that melancholy to the death of his father, but if you look at the earlier work, you see the seeds were there before," says Mary Holahan, curator of collections at the Delaware Art Museum. The museum, which reopened in June after a two-year, $31 million expansion, has several Wyeths.

No time like wintertime

Standing next to Wyeth's Arthur Cleveland, a gloomy portrait of a neighbor painted in 1946, Holahan points out that the muted browns and oranges that are Wyeth trademarks reflect the reality of winter here, when the landscape is dormant, the air crisp and clear, and the sun low on the horizon. The paintings Wyeth does in Maine during his summers often reveal more color.

Indeed, winter seems to be the best time to see the inspiration for Wyeth's work, says visitor Donald Esacove, 72, of Marina Del Rey, Calif. -- even if spring, summer and fall are better times to visit the area's celebrated gardens.

"I'm struck by the oranges and reds in the landscape that also appear in the paintings," he says during a tour of the N.C. Wyeth Home & Studio in Chadds Ford, where Andrew Wyeth grew up. "In Southern California, we don't have these seasonal changes."

The home and studio, which opened to tours in 1998, are surrounded by the same rolling brown fields that would have been etched into Wyeth's mind as a child. And as Esacove takes in the quiet scene, his breath turning to smoke as he talks, he says he now has a far better understanding of Wyeth's wintry landscapes. "This is a great time to come."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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