ROCKLAND, Maine — Betsy Wyeth, the wife of beloved artist Andrew Wyeth, died at her home in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. She was 98.
Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, were prominent figures in midcoast Maine, where they lived seasonally in Port Clyde and on two islands they owned off the coast of St. George. Betsy Wyeth was not just her husband’s muse, but played a critical role in shaping his Maine-inspired work which would become a cornerstone of his artistic legacy.
“Her love of the midcoast was felt far beyond the reaches of the art world. Her generosity extended to the island residents, the fisherman, and the people of Maine. Through her support of the [Farnsworth Art Museum], we have been able to exhibit countless of her late husband’s works throughout the past decades for the enjoyment of our local, national, and international visitors. We extend our most sincere condolences to the family,” Director of the Farnsworth Art Museum Christopher Brownawell said Tuesday night.
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Andrew Wyeth is the son of N.C. Wyeth, a famed painter and illustrator. Andrew and Betsy’s son Jamie Wyeth has also grown his own fame as a painter. Altogether, the Wyeth family has documented Maine’s people and landscapes through their art for three generations.
The Wyeth’s impact on Maine’s role in American art is so large that the Farnsworth has an entire center dedicated to the family’s work. Loans from the personal collection of Betsy and Andrew Wyeth have allowed the Farnsworth to present the family’s work to visitors from around the world.
Betsy Wyeth was born and raised in New York, but spent time as a child in Cushing, according to Architectural Digest. It was in Maine that she would meet Andrew Wyeth, who asked her to marry him at dance in Rockland in 1939.
It was Betsy Wyeth who introduced her husband to Christina and Alvaro Olson, who lived on a sprawling farm in Cushing, according to Farnsworth communications director David Troup. The Olson House is where Andrew Wyeth would find inspiration for nearly 300 works of art, including his most famous painting, Christina’s World.
“Betsy played an essential role in Andrew’s career,” Troup said. “She provided the support that allowed him to follow his artistic vision while dealing with pressure from dealers, patrons, critics and his father, N.C. Through their years together, she served as Andy’s model, inspiration, advisor, curator, editor and business manager.”
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Photographer Peter Ralston grew up living next door to the Wyeth’s at their Pennsylvania home. Ralston eventually developed a lifelong friendship with the couple, who invited him to spend the summer of 1978 on Southern Island, a private island they owned near Tenants Harbor.
“Andy and Betsy were really second parents to me,” Ralston said Wednesday. “They were great mentors and really truly influenced my life. They gave me Maine.”
Betsy Wyeth had a deep love for Maine’s islands and would eventually own three — Southern Island, Allen Island and Benner Island. On these islands, Ralston said Betsy Wyeth built a world where she could relish in freedom and privacy.
“She took great exquisite care [of the islands],” Ralston said. “She was big and bold and yet so attentive to every single little detail, just like Andy was with his paintings.”
Her love of Maine’s islands was so deep, that it eventually rubbed off on Ralston and Philip Conkling, who in 1983 would establish the Island Institute, which works to support Maine’s island communities. Betsy Wyeth donated to the duo 10 signed Andrew Wyeth prints to sell inorder to fund the organization in its first year.
Aside from her financial contribution, Betsy Wyeth was a driving force in the creation of the organization’s publication, the Island Journal. The journal was the first endeavor the Island Institute undertook “and it solidified storytelling in our DNA,” according to Island Institute President Rob Snyder.
“Because of Betsy’s insight and support the Island Journal has long been recognized as a wonderful celebration of Maine’s island life and culture, weaving a rich tapestry of indelible story-telling and imagery,” Snyder said. “The journal is a deep reflection of Betsy’s vision and love of the Maine coast, and it represents one way that she will live on through our organization.”
It’s understandable that when many people hear the name Wyeth, their mind immediately goes to N.C. or Andrew or Jamie. But Ralston said Betsy played a critical role in the family’s legacy, even if she wasn’t a painter herself.
“Andy would never really have become the Andrew Wyeth the world knows without Betsy,” Ralston said. “Betsy informed his sensibilities, she created the worlds in which they lived and Andy painted what he loved and lived. The two of them together were an extraordinarily productive, brilliant, creative couple whose accomplishments speak for themselves and will live forever.”