Nestled in the Atlantic Ocean, five miles off the coast of quaint Port Clyde, Maine, lie two rugged islands with stories to tell. Allen and Benner, as they are called, witnessed a succession of inhabitants over the centuries, from Abenakis and English settlers to lobster fishermen. And then came Betsy and Andrew Wyeth – residents of mid-coast Maine and the most prominent members of what many consider the first family of American art.
After the death in 2020 at age 98 of Betsy James Wyeth, notoriously formidable adviser, collaborator, business leader, muse and wife of realist painter Andrew Wyeth, a polarizing figure in American art history, the keys to the castle pass from now on. to a much younger generation. (He died in 2009 at age 91.)
Colby College in Waterville, Maine, about 75 miles inland from the islands, is set to announce that it has acquired Allen and Benner from the family’s two foundations, Up East and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The Colby connection could breathe new life into a name that’s been lacking youth for some time.
The islands are rich in wildlife and dotted with vernacular architecture – some buildings Betsy restored and others she designed – that evoke the thriving fishing village that once stood here. In the acquisition, Colby not only adds a 500-acre island campus to its 700 acres in Waterville; he is also instrumental in continuing Wyeth’s complex legacy. Although the college does not appropriate Andrew’s works that were once on the islands, the Colby College Art Museum will be the first to publicly feature more than a dozen drawings he made in the 1990s of his imaginary funeral, which he kept secret, according to painter Jamie Wyeth, Andrew and Betsy’s youngest son.
Newly discovered footage from June 2 to October 16 shows Andrew lying in a coffin and the guests who would likely be present, including his wife and friends (who were also his subjects). “Towards the end of his life he got nervous,” Jamie Wyeth said. He had seen a picture of a friend in a coffin during a visitation and it sent him into a “spin”, he added.
Acquiring the two islands cost the college $2 million, with the rest of the property’s market value — a total of $10 million to $12 million, Colby College president David Greene said — paid as form of donation in kind by the foundations. “We could have kept the islands, but to see them frozen in amber would be a tragedy,” said J. Robinson West, president of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
Betsy bought Allen Island in 1979 at the suggestion of Jamie, who is now 75 and spends much of his time on Southern Island, which his parents bought in 1978, and Monhegan Island, where he lives in a house built by artist Rockwell Kent. In 1990, Betsy also purchased Benner, the much smaller neighboring island. She spent May to October here, and so did her husband, whenever she could lure him by boat from her favorite workspace in her childhood home in Port Clyde, to her father’s workshop, the legendary illustrator. NC Wyeth.
Allen and Benner have never been the kind of illustrious summer getaways typically found on the Maine coast. “Betsy never identified with the summer people,” West said. Neither did her husband. “I love Maine despite its landscapes,” he told his future biographer, Richard Meryman.
Betsy and Andrew, who both grew up in the summer near the coast, shared an appreciation for the working class of Maine’s mid-coast, the same weather-worn fishermen and farmers that Andrew portrayed almost obsessively. There isn’t a large estate to see here, but Betsy built a commercial-sized wharf for local lobster fishing teams to use as a staging post. As you approach the islands, a cluster of cedar shingle and white clapboard structures emerge in the distance. And then hundreds of brightly colored lobster traps appear stacked in neat towers.
“My mother really didn’t want the islands to be a museum,” Jamie Wyeth said during a visit to Allen and Benner last month with Greene and a reporter. “She wanted them to be working islands. And they will work even harder now.
Colby had partial access to Allen Island since 2016. and Greene is working with the foundation to determine the best use of historic buildings in Benner, where the Wyeths lived. The college’s goal isn’t just to take care of the structures, Greene said. “It’s also a recognition that these islands need to change over time in order for them to continue to be vital and relevant, and to do so in a way that demonstrates the same care that Betsy had for them.”
Colby retains the working lobster wharf while expanding the use of the islands as a center for interdisciplinary study. This is an opportune time to have an island field station; the data indicates that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world’s oceans, and that students and teachers are watching changes in biodiversity up close. Colby’s new access has allowed the college to lead research and attract new faculty and grants, says chemistry professor Whitney King. A major study Colby conducted on the economics of the lobster industry and how it might be affected over time is one way Greene is trying to expand on what the Wyeths started.
Students also have a rich past to dig into. British explorer George Weymouth landed on Allen in 1605, and a stone cross bearing his name, planted on the edge of the island some 300 years later, is a reminder that the first Anglican Church service in North America was took place here. It’s a strange counterpoint to the piles of shells and arrowheads found when Betsy arrives.
If the lobster pots stacked here today were more weathered, they could have served as fodder for one of Andrew’s paintings. A household name for much of the 20th century, Andrew produced paintings that were as beloved by the masses as they were derided by avant-garde critics for their realistic depictions of rural Maine and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
“I called it the ‘Wyeth Curse,'” said Wanda Corn, an American art historian, referring to the belief that her work was unmodern and more akin to illustration, and to its “artistically and politically conservative” audience.
This curse wears off over time, Corn said. At their auction, Andrew Wyeth’s best works reliably reach seven figures. His artistic legacy faces a different obstacle today, however. “The market for Andrew Wyeth is as stable as ever in the same world of people who have always appreciated his work,” said Victoria Manning, whose gallery, Sommerville Manning, near Chadds Ford, manages the Wyeths’ work. “But right now, diversity is important for museums and a younger generation.”
In a 2017 assessment of his paintings of Blacks in the Brandywine Valley, historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw questioned the power imbalance in his depiction of race and also pointed out that in a handful of paintings he darkened the complexion of its white model. , Helga Testorf, a neighbor of Chadds Ford who posed for him in secret for more than a decade.
Betsy’s shrewd management of her husband’s career shaped his popularity and financial success. She critiqued his paintings, wrote books about him, helped figure out what to sell, and cataloged every squiggle. She also named several of his paintings, including the one that catapulted him to international stardom, “Christine’s World” (1948), which was inspired by a vision of their physically handicapped, locked-up neighbor and friend, Christina Olson, (Betsy introduced them in 1939 and later posed for the picture.)
She also put her influence and resources at the service of the islands. “They were her other man,” said Mary Landa, the couple’s longtime collection manager. Betsy commissioned ecological research and preservation and helped found the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine, the first advocacy group for the state’s vast archipelago.
She created pastures, dug ponds, restored old buildings – including a few salvaged from the mainland and rebuilt – and designed new ones, often using the weathered bones of old ones. Sometimes she would compose Wyeth-esque scenes to inspire her husband to paint. And sometimes he took the bait. Her latest work, ‘Goodbye’, 2008, shows the 19th century Allen Island sail loft, which Betsy has reclaimed from the mainland and turned into a gallery, as a ghostly figure steps out of the picture plane.
A tiny 19th century house on Benner where two fishing families once lived served as Andrew’s workshop. Their neighboring residence, meanwhile, a reproduction of an 18th-century Cape house, is sparingly decorated with country antiques and folk art with the sobriety that characterizes its paintings. One wonders if Betsy is behind the aesthetic.
Reproductions now hang in place of the original temperas and watercolors that once hung here every summer. Paintings from the couple’s collection are now part of the holdings of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, which announces estate settlement details in March, West said. A treasure is unlikely to hit the market like it did when the Wyeths sold Andrew of Testorf’s photos.
Betsy left a few parting gifts, including 27 works by three generations of men from Wyeth, Jamie, Andrew and NC, to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, one of the largest repositories of Andrew’s work, along with the Brandywine River Museum of Art. at Chadds Ford.
It remains to be seen how Colby’s arrangement might affect the Colby College Museum of Art, which has a strong focus on American art, with nearly 400 works by James McNeill Whistler, around 900 by Alex Katz and six by Andrew Wyeth.
But as the islands change hands, the story of Wyeth goes far beyond the walls of the museum. Greene said he would like to be in a position where every student uses the island campus.
For Jamie Wyeth, it’s bittersweet. “It’s very difficult for me because I’ve spent so much time here,” he said. “But I think it’s a wonderful future for the islands.”