Andrew Wyeth began painting Betsy Merle James when they met, in the summer of 1939. He had been invited, on his twenty-second birthday, by artist and editor Merle James, to meet James’ three daughters.
Betsy was 17 at the time, and she took Wyeth to meet her neighbors, siblings Alvaro and Christina Olson. Wyeth began painting the Olsons and their home that summer, as well. Christina was paralyzed from the waist down and refused to use a wheelchair or crutches. It was Betsy who posed for, and titled, Christina’s World, Wyeth’s most celebrated work.
Andrew and Betsy were married in 1940, when Wyeth’s career was beginning to take off. In 1942 the couple met Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine, at an art show in Delaware. Josephine explained to Betsy how she archived all of her husband’s work and Betsy began to do the same with Wyeth’s.
She became his business manager and muse, negotiating his commissions, organizing shows and maintaining his catalog raisonné. Maine photographer, Peter Ralston said, “Betsy would create the worlds in which they lived and Andy would paint them.”
Wyeth grew up under the strict tutelage of his famed illustrator father, N.C. Wyeth, who was killed a car accident in 1945. It was Betsy who convinced Wyeth to pursue fine art, rather than illustration.
Their youngest son, painter Jamie Wyeth, said that Betsy was Wyeth’s toughest critic and would edit and title every work. “I always felt her signature should be alongside his.” he said.
In 1985, Wyeth garnered much attention when he revealed paintings that he said he had done secretly, for fifteen years, of Helga Testorf, his neighbor’s nurse. The paintings appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek and there followed an exhibit of the Helga Paintings at the National Gallery in Washington. Time magazine art critic, Robert Hughes, accused Betsy of orchestrating the scandal as a publicity stunt.
“I expressed skepticism about it.” Hughes wrote, “It all seemed a little too good to be quite true, and the romance with the blonde struck me as distinctly unlikely. And since it had long been a well-known fact that Betsy Wyeth was her husband’s business manager, the notion of a quarter of a thousand objects squirreled away from her eyes over one-third of their matrimonial life together seemed even less likely.”
Helga eventually became Wyeth’s studio assistant and, in later years, his caregiver.
The Wyeth’s matrimonial life lasted nearly seventy years. Andrew Wyeth died in 2009, at age 91. Betsy Wyeth died in 2020 at age 98.
The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, is currently exhibiting portraits of Betsy by Andrew Wyeth. Betsy Wyeth: Partner and Muse will run through January 9, 2022.
Penelope Green. Betsy Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s Widow and Collaborator, Dies at 98. The New York Times. April 26, 2020.
Robert Hughes. The Great Hype: When Helga Fooled Us All. Literary Hub. November 18, 2015.