Colby College Acquires The Islands That Inspired Andrew and Betsy Wyeth

Located in the Atlantic Ocean, five miles off the coast of the picturesque town of Port Clyde, Me. is two rugged islands with stories to tell. The so-called Allen and Benner have witnessed a range of residents over the centuries, from Abenaki people and British colonists to rancher lobsterers. And then came Betsy and Andrew Wyeth – natives of mid-coast Maine and the highest-profile members many consider to be the first family of American art.

After he died at the age of 98 in 2020 Betsy James Wyethfamed adviser, collaborator, business manager, muse, and wife of realist painter Andrew Wyeth. polarized shape In American art history, the keys to the castle now pass on to a much younger generation. (HE died in 2009 at 91.)

About 75 miles inland from the islands, Colby College of Waterville is preparing to announce the acquisition of Me., Allen and Benner from the family’s two foundations, Up East and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The Colby connection can breathe new life into a name that has been lacking in youth for a while.

The islands are rich in wildlife and adorned with local architecture – buildings that Betsy has restored and some designed – evoking the thriving fishing village that once stood here. In the purchase, Colby not only adds a 500-acre island campus to its 700-acre property in Waterville; it also plays an instrumental role in moving forward the complex Wyeth legacy. While the College did not take ownership of Andrew’s artworks once found on the islands, Colby College Art Museum According to painter Jamie Wyeth, Andrew and Betsy’s youngest son, he will be the first to make public more than a dozen drawings of his fictitious funeral, which he kept secret, made in the 1990s.

Recently discovered footage, on display from June 2 to October 16, shows Andrew lying in a coffin and guests likely to attend, including his wife and friends (who are also his subjects). “He got nervous towards the end of his life,” said Jamie Wyeth. He had seen a photo of a friend in a coffin on a cruise, and this photo put him in a “tail point”.

The purchase of the two islands cost the college $2 million, the market value of the rest of the property – a total of $10 million to $12 million, said Colby College president David Greene – contributed by foundations as a gift in kind. . “We could keep the islands, but it would be a tragedy to see them frozen in amber,” 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 most of her time on the South Island, where her family bought it in 1978, and on Monhegan Island, where she lives in a house built by artist Rockwell Kent. In 1990 Betsy also bought Benner, the much smaller island next door. She spent May through October here, and so did her husband when he lured her by boat from her preferred workspace at her childhood home in Port Clyde, at her legendary illustrator father’s studio. NC Wyeth.

Allen and Benner were never the kind of glorious summer getaway typically found on the Maine coast. “Betsy never identified with the summer people,” West said. Neither did her husband. “I love Maine despite its scenery,” he told Richard Meryman, who wrote his ultimate biographer.

Betsy and Andrew, who had both recently grown up in the summer, shared an appreciation for Maine’s tough mid-coast working class, the same weathered fishermen and ranchers Andrew had almost obsessively portrayed. There’s not much to see here, but Betsy has built a commercial-sized dock for local lobster crews to use as a way station. As you approach the islands, a series of cedar and white clapboard structures emerge in the distance. And then hundreds of brightly colored lobster traps seem to be piled up in neat towers.

“My mom really didn’t want the islands to be museums,” Jamie Wyeth said when visiting Allen and Benner last month with Greene and a reporter. “He wanted them to be working islands. And now they will work even harder.”

Colby has Partial access to Allen Island since 2016. and Greene are working with the foundation to determine the best use of historic buildings in Benner, where the Wyeths live. Greene said the purpose of the college isn’t just about looking at structures. “It’s also an acknowledgment that these islands need to change over time to remain vital and relevant, and to do so in a way that Betsy cares for them.”

Colby retains the working lobster pier while expanding the use of the islands as an interdisciplinary study hub. A good time to own an island field station; data shows That the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of the world’s oceans, and students and faculty are closely monitoring biodiversity changes. Professor of chemistry Whitney King says Colby’s new reach has enabled the college to spearhead research and attract new faculty and grants. Colby’s major research into the economics of the lobster industry and how it may be affected over time is one way Greene sought to expand on what the Wyeths started.

Students also have a rich background to delve deeper into. English explorer George Weymouth landed at Allen in 1605, and a stone cross named after him, erected on the edge of the island nearly 300 years later, is a reminder that the first Anglican Church service in North America was held here. A spooky counterpoint to the bullet debris and arrowheads found when Betsy arrives.

Had the lobster traps piled up here today more worn, they might have been bait for one of Andrew’s paintings. Andrew, who was a household name for much of the 20th century, painted rural Maine and Chadds Ford paintings that were as popular with the masses as they were derided by pioneering critics for their realistic portrayals of Pa.

“I’ve called it the ‘Wyeth Curse’,” said American art historian Wanda Corn, referring to her belief that her work is non-modern and more akin to illustration, and that her audiences are “artistically and politically conservative.”

Corn said that this curse fades with time. When Andrew Wyeth’s best works appear at auction, he reliably brings in seven figures. But his artistic legacy faces a different hurdle today. “Andrew Wyeth’s market is as stable as ever in the world with people who have always admired his work,” said Victoria Manning, who runs Wyeths’ work at the Sommerville Manning gallery near Chadds Ford. But right now, diversity is important for museums and the younger generation.”

Historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw in a 2017 review of her portrayal of Black people in the Brandywine Valley power imbalance in racial representationand also noted that in a handful of pictures, the white model of Chadds Ford’s neighbor, Helga Testorf, who had secretly posed for him for over a decade, darkened her complexion.

Betsy’s shrewd management of her husband’s career has shaped her popularity and financial success. She critiqued her paintings, wrote books about her, helped determine what to sell, and cataloged every doodle she had. She has also named several of her paintings, including the one that catapulted her to international stardom. “Christina’s World” (1948) was inspired by a vision of her physically disabled, withdrawn neighbor and friend Christina Olson (Betsy introduced them in 1939 and later posed for the photo.)

He also used his influence and resources to work on the islands. “They were her other man,” said Mary Landa, longtime manager of the couple’s collection. Betsy commissioned ecological research and conservation and helped found the Island Institute in Rockland, Me, the state’s first advocacy group for the vast archipelago.

He created pastures, dug ponds, restored ancient buildings, including several salvaged and rebuilt from the mainland, and designed new ones, often using the patina bones of the old. Sometimes she composed Wyeth-like scenes to inspire her husband to paint. And sometimes he took the bait. Her latest work, “Goodbye” 2008, shows the 19th-century sailing loft of Allen Island, which Betsy rescues from the mainland and transforms it into a gallery while a ghostly figure sails from the picture plane.

In Benner, where two fishing families once lived, a very small 19th-century house served as Andrew’s studio. Meanwhile, their nearby residence, a reproduction of an 18th-century cape house, is sparingly decorated with country antiques and folk art, with the strict restraint that marks its paintings. One wonders if it’s because of Betsy’s aesthetic.

Every summer, reproductions now hang in place of the original temperas and watercolors that once hung here. West said the paintings in the couple’s collection are now in the possession of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, which announced details of the property deal in March. A treasure like the one when the Wyeths sold Andrew’s paintings is unlikely to hit the market. Testorf.

Betsy left some parting gifts, including 27 works by three generations of Wyeth men, Jamie, Andrew, and NC, to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me, one of the larger repositories of Andrew’s work, along with Brandywine River. The Art Museum in Chadds Ford.

It remains to be seen how Colby’s arrangement will affect the Colby College Art Museum, which has a strong American art focus with around 400 by James McNeill Whistler, nearly 900 by Alex Katz and six by Andrew Wyeth.

But as the islands change hands, the Wyeth story goes far beyond the museum walls. Greene said he wants to be in a location where every student uses the island campus.

For Jamie Wyeth, this is bittersweet. “It’s very difficult for me because I spent so much time here,” he said. “But I think it’s a great future for the islands.”

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