Betsy James Wyeth Dead, Famed Art Family Matriarch Dies At Home At Age 98

Betsy James Wyeth, the widow, business manager, and lifelong muse of the late American painter, Andrew Wyeth, has died. The art family matriarch, who is mother to contemporary realist painter Jamie Wyeth and older son, Nicholas, had been in declining health for several years before she passed at home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, at age 98, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Betsy -- who married Andrew at 17 years old -- was a strong force throughout her husband's career, and he often credited her for his success. He often said she was the driving force that made him become the painter he was meant to be. Betsy also introduced her husband to her family friend, Christina Olson, the model for what would become his best-known work, "Christina's World."

Not only was Betsy her husband's muse, but she was also his archivist, advisor, and business manager. Their partnership was legendary in the American art world. Andrew died in 2009.


Betsy Was An Editor And Author

The Wyeth matriarch was a renowned archivist. Following the death of her father-in-law, famed Treasure Island illustrator N.C. Wyeth, Betsy compiled and edited the book The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, which featured the late artist's letters to his mother and son.

Betsy also published books focused on her husband's work, including Wyeth at Kuerners in 1976, followed by Christina's World in 1982. In 1979, she collaborated with her son Jamie on the book The Stray, which she wrote and he illustrated.


She Was The Force Behind The Museum Dedicated To Her Family's Work

More than 50 years ago, Betsy had the idea of turning a local grist mill into what would become the Brandywine River Museum of Art, located just a few miles from the Wyeth family's longtime home in Chadds Ford. The museum opened in 1971 and showcases the works of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth, as well as several other family members and many local artists.

In a tribute to Betsy following her death, the museum's trustees credited the Wyeth family matriarch with "the creation and opening" of the museum and described her as "a visionary in the worlds of art and architecture."

The museum, which is currently closed to the public amid the coronavirus pandemic, stated it was planning a memorial tribute to Betsy featuring 18 works in which her late husband depicted her. Some of Andrew's most notable paintings featuring Betsy include "Maga's Daughter" (1966) and "French Twist" (1967).


She Handled Scandal With Grace

In the mid-1980s, Andrew rocked the art world when it was revealed he had been secretly painting with his neighbor, Helga Testorf, as a model for more than 15 years. The secret collaboration produced more than 240 paintings and drawings of Testorf both with and without clothes on. Betsy, who had always been heavily involved in her husband's career, knew nothing about the paintings.

According to the Inquirer, Betsy had a simple answer for when she was asked why her husband of more than 40 years felt he had to keep the Helga pictures a secret.

"Love," she stated.

Once the secret was out, Betsy famously put her nose to the grindstone, cataloged the Helga Collection, and it was sold.

"The only way she could ground herself was to put them in order. It was a very rough few years for Betsy," said Mary Landa, the manager of the Betsy & Andrew Wyeth Collection.

In an interview at the time with The New York Times, Betsy revealed Andrew told her Helga was one of the best models he ever worked with.

''He said, 'Oh, my God, I've never had such a model,'" the Wyeth matriarch said. "He has mentioned how quiet she was, how she never spoke. She was a great model as far as posing. She would look at him and say, 'You've only been painting and drawing for four hours.' He'd almost fall over from exhaustion.''