Betsy Wyeth’s Living Island Legacy

Betsy Wyeth

Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.
Betsy Wyeth
Discover this Matriarch’s Fundamental Role in American Art History

Betsy ensured that Andrew could work without distraction by purchasing three private islands in the Gulf of Maine to create a living sanctuary.

Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.

Betsy Wyeth

“She made me see more clearly what I wanted… Betsy galvanized me at the time I needed it. She’s made me into a painter I would not have been otherwise.”

Andrew Wyeth

On a rugged group of islands off the coast of Maine, Betsy Wyeth (1921-2020) created a world that nurtured the talent of her husband, American realist painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), and their artist son Jamie (b.1946).

Andrew visualized the mood and deep emotional impact of places that Betsy orchestrated for them. Jamie, who also benefited from her orchestrating, even went so far as to say once that, “She should have also signed his paintings.”

You can almost taste the salt sea air and feel the wind-swept vistas in the works both father and son have painted; each in their unique style, hovering between the hyper-real and the inner world of that which is unseen.

With considerable forethought and shrewd planning, Betsy embedded the Wyeth artistic and cultural legacy into the fabric of the educational communities surrounding the two places most affected by the Wyeths: Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Cushing, Maine. While she was content to stay out of the spotlight during their seven decades of married life, her death at the age of 98 on April 21, 2020, ultimately revealed the extent of her role in the family’s art-production and in the art world at large.

Geraniums, 1960 is a painting of a bedroom as seen through an exterior window. Geraniums appear in the background, seemingly on a bedside table.
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021. © 2021 Andrew Wyeth/ Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Andrew Wyeth, Geraniums, 1960. Drybrush watercolor on paper. 20.75 x 15.5 inches.

Room after Room, 1967
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021. © 2021 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Andrew Wyeth, Room after Room, 1967. Watercolor on paper. 28.875 x 22.875 inches.

Andrew and Betsy Wyeth
Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.

Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. 

Meteor Shower, 1993
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

James Wyeth, Meteor Shower, 1993. Oil and essence of pearl on panel. 38 x 48 inches.

Islander, 1975
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

James Wyeth, Islander, 1975. Oil on canvas. 34 x 44 3/8 inches.

1946 Shorty, 1963
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

James Wyeth, Shorty, 1963. Oil on canvas.18 x 22 inches.

Cleaning Fish, 1933
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

N.C. Wyeth, Cleaning Fish, 1933. Oil on canvas. 47 5/8 x 51 3/4 inches.

Fisherman’s Family, prior to 1935
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

N.C. Wyeth, Fisherman’s Family, prior to 1935. Oil on canvas. 60 x 71 3/4 inches.

The Harbor at Herring Gut, 1925
Bequest of Betsy J. Wyeth, 2021.

N.C. Wyeth, The Harbor at Herring Gut, 1925. Oil on canvas. 43 x 48 1/8 inches.

Battleground
Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.

Betsy was self-assured to such an extent that the strength of her convictions sometimes strained the relationship she had with her father-in-law, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945). The famed illustrator also painted on the islands off the coast of Maine. Even so, she invested much time and energy into the preservation of his memory. Her 1970 book, The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, for example, led to a reassessment of N.C.’s artistic legacy.

Andrew and Betsy met on her seventeenth birthday in July 12, 1939. He was twenty-two. Her dark-haired beauty touched the artist and she became his confidant, business partner, and muse. Although the love they shared was great and their marriage was life-long, the two both had strong personalities.

Andrew was gregarious while Betsy was a private person who did not enjoy being in crowds. The concept of island living, where you had complete control of who you encountered, was appealing to her. As a willing model and indomitable manager of Andrew’s career, Betsy ensured that Andrew could work without distraction by purchasing three private islands in the Gulf of Maine to create a living sanctuary. Despite his initial resistance, Andrew would ultimately paint some of his most iconic works on these islands.

Her first purchase came in 1978. It was Southern Island, where her artist son Jamie still lives and paints. The opportunity to buy Allen Island came in 1979 and, in 1990, she acquired Benner Island. Together, this was more than 500 acres of land. Functioning as curator, Betsy established a model for conservation, acknowledging the indigenous Abenaki presence, and supporting the preservation of Maine’s working waterfront. She created an extraordinary built and natural environment, but her vision was not realized alone.

Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.

Peter Ralston—an admired local photographer and owner of Ralston Gallery in Rockport, Maine—was just a kid when he and his family were neighbors of the Wyeth’s in Chadds Ford, PA.

In a recent interview Ralston said, “Andy used to paint in an old barn—my brothers and I would stalk him. I had a crush on Betsy. They were kind. Right away they saw something in me as a photographer… It was at dinner in 1977 when Betsy looked at me and pronounced ‘You are coming with us to Maine!” Ralston did indeed go to Maine. At twenty-eight, he became a close confident of the Wyeth’s and worked to sustainably rehabilitate this feral island while honoring its history.

Betsy had a way of engaging willing partners to take ownership in her vision. Many helped her form a community of like-minded people and they ultimately shared in the benefit.

Courtesy of and photo by Peter Ralston.

Ralston also said, “Everyone she hires—it is one of her rules—comes from within a 20-mile radius of the islands—local people, gifted artisans, who know the weather and the water, and who cherish islands.”  Ralston was instrumental in bringing Philip Conkling, a Yale-trained forestry management and island ecologist/researcher, into their project. Ralston credited Conkling as, “a true visionary, a brilliant strategist… We founded The Island Institute together in 1983. Philip was responsible for initiating early discussions between the Wyeth’s and Colby.”

Ralston still handles sales for some Wyeth prints out of his Rockport gallery but the transitional work of facilitating the transfer of these islands to Colby College was left to Conkling.

Few people know more about Maine island ecology than Peter Conkling. This is easy to see in his interview with Art & Object. “The Maine coast harbors several thousand islands. I stopped counting islands after 1,000!” he exclaims, then adds, “About 600-800 are inhabitable. I worked with Betsy Wyeth using Allen Island as a template, with aquaculture, forestry, and rare plant surveys as demonstration projects. We had a wonderful relationship, a mix of conservation and reviving a working community.”

The new president of Colby, David Greene, was an enthusiastic partner. Under his leadership Colby agreed to shape a series of programs in both the arts and sciences in which the islands would play the central role. These programs formed the groundwork leading to Colby’s official ownership of the islands at the end of 2021 catapulting the College into a major presence on the coast of Maine where they will act as stewards of Betsy Wyeth’s legacy, just as she had planned.

“Like the Wyeth family, Colby has a deep and demonstrated commitment to excellence in American art as well as to the welfare of Maine—its people, culture, and environment—which is why the College is the ideal partner,” said J. Robinson West, president of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. “Colby is Maine, and we couldn’t have made a better choice for stewarding these islands into the future."

The exhibition Betsy's Gift on view at The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine from June 11, 2022-December 31, 2022 honors the legacy of Betsy James Wyeth in this focus on the paintings of her son Jamie Wyeth and his grandfather, NC Wyeth. Her generosity to the museum during her life extended after her death in 2020 and enriched the Farnsworth collection of art.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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