Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Great Monthly Museum Challenge: #1(a) The Brandywine River Museum

The Brandywine River Museum is an art museum located in an old mill, and you can see several of the original features inside. It has an open, rustic feel, and is the perfect setting for the three artists it features: N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth. They lived and worked in Chester County (actually, Jamie is still alive and working), and some of their works were inspired by and reflect places and people from the area. Parts of the county still look exactly like the landscapes and genre paintings that they created. And I love how, especially in the winter months, the outside, which can be seen from various floor-to-ceiling windows in the museum, is like an Andrew Wyeth painting, with its creek, rocks and gravel, broken branches, rusty train bridge, wooden hut, and stark but beautiful landscape all around. Here are some highlights from the various galleries:

First Floor Gallery
(on the day that I visited, there was a special exhibit of some of Andrew Wyeth's works in this gallery)
One of Andrew Wyeth's inspirations was 17th-century German painter and engraver/print maker Albrecht Durer, and once you see his works it becomes easy to find the similarities. Along with some of Wyeth's paintings that feature dogs -- both his dog, Nell, and those of his neighbors -- there are various sketches and small studies that he did before even taking paint to canvas. Even a great artist doesn't always get things right on the first try. In the sketches and studies, he tried the dogs in various poses, and played with scale and composition. Some of the studies were just of a single nose or a paw.

Other things to look for in this gallery: the five shape families in the painting Ides of March; how the dogs' faces and postures in Raccoon and the various other dog paintings display the feelings that Wyeth was trying to express (and trying to elicit from us).

Second Floor: Landscape Gallery My favorite exercise in this gallery was to look at all of the frames and see how they affected the paintings that they surrounded.The traditional method of framing oil paintings was to use an elaborately-carved gold frame, and these can still be seen on many works, especially those that were framed prior to the 1900s. The frames were often more costly than the paintings themselves (and were a sign of the collector's wealth and status). But a frame like that isn't always the best choice. For instance, I love the simple framing on Thomas Doughty's Gilpin's Mill on the Brandywine. It makes you feel like you're looking out of your window onto the scene below. I also really loved Howard Pyle's illustration entitled "She Saw Herself for What He Had Said, and Swooned." I don't know anything about the 1909 novel for which it was created, The Castle on the Dunes, but the painting sure makes me want to read it. You don't see much maidenly swooning these days. Ditto Pyle's "They Stood Staring at the Violent Sky."
Other things to look for in this gallery: the use of light and shadow (known as chiaroscuro) in Mary Blood Mellen's Moonlight Fishing Scene, Halfway Rock; the brush work in George L. Noyes' Impressionist-inspired Annisquam Landscape; the use of point-of-view (the direction of our gaze) in the powerful Canadian Trapper by Frank Schoonover, pictured above; Horace Pippin's Birmingham Meeting House; Winslow Homer's Civil War magazine illustrations; The Immigrants by Ellen Pyle; Howard Pyle's black and white oil paintings (and the many beautiful shades of gray that he was able to achieve); Ruin by Dorothy P. Lathrop; and The Woman in Business by Alice Barber Stephens.

Second Floor: Portrait and Still Life Galleries
I find myself drawn to portraits because I think the human face is endlessly fascinating. I also want to know about the person pictured. Well, the story behind the portrait of Martha Harford Hare, painted by Benjamin West in 1775, brings her vividly to life. Her son emigrated from England to America. He liked it so much that he decided to stay, and he married an American woman of whom Martha did not approve. Now, in those days, there were no phones or email or airplanes, so, other than letter-writing, there was no way for Martha to express her disapproval directly. So she had the following portrait (pictured on page 5 of the link) painted and sent it to her son as a "gift." Now, of course Martha would have no way of knowing for certain if her son actually hung it in his home. But he did keep it. How would you like that face staring at you while you are your breakfast? Mothers, man. Am I right? ;-)

Other things to look for in this gallery: Virtuoso by Garry Erbe; the use of trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") in Which Is Which? by Jefferson David Chalfant.

Third Floor: N.C. Wyeth Gallery
Hands-down my favorite Wyeth. There are a few stand-alone paintings, but most paintings were intended to end up as illustrations for classic works, specifically classics for older children. N.C. Wyeth saw painting and illustration as two different things, but he didn't see illustration as a lesser form of visual art, and I couldn't agree more. He knew how to paint in various media and with various techniques as well as the other artists of his day, as you can see from some of the paintings in the gallery, but he chose to focus on illustrations and it is for those that he is most famous. He was taught by master illustrator Howard Pyle, and later went on to teach other art students, among them his children, four of which (Andrew, Henriette, Carolyn, and Ann) went on to become artists themselves. It's really difficult for me to pick favorites in this gallery, but I will focus on two. "I said goodbye to Mother and the Cove", a scene from Treasure Island, is a simple landscape with just a house and two figures, and this simplicity perfectly captures a feeling of both isolation and desolation. Jim's face is in shadow. He is heading off, out of the known (the light) and into the unknown.
Also mesmerizing is the original painting for the endpapers of The Last of the Mohicans. Wyeth was sometimes dissatisfied with the reproduction techniques of the day, and this is one instance where the printed illustration does not do full justice to the subtlety of the original. The fog, the use of light, and the reflections on the water really need to be seen in the original, large-scale work.

Other things to look for in this gallery: The Wreck of the Covenant and In a Dream I Met General Washington.

Third Floor: Andrew Wyeth Gallery
Andrew Wyeth is most famous for painting the classic Christina's World, which, unfortunately, is not owned by the Brandywine. But here you can see the equally famous Snow Hill (pictured below) and the finished work Raccoon, as well as Dryad, Across the Valley, and my favorite, Woodshed.
Snow Hill, Andrew Wyeth, 1989

Woodshed, Andrew Wyeth, 1944

Other things to look for in this gallery: the use of both lights and light in Renfield Study; the brushwork in his untitled piece from 1961.

Third Floor: Jamie and the other Wyeths
For me, this gallery is all about two Jamie Wyeth works and the stories behind them. I won't share the stories here because they need to be read while viewing the original paintings in all of their size and glory. But, trust me, go see them. You won't be disappointed.
Angus, Jamie Wyeth, 1974
Portrait of a Pig, Jamie Wyeth, 1970

Other things to look for in this gallery: the series of Rudolph Nureyev portraits by Jamie; two Carolyn Wyeth paintings that bring to mind the qualities and techniques of Surrealist artists like Magritte and de Chirico.

Overall experience: This is one of my favorite museums in the area, and I have visited numerous times. It's a Chester County treasure that I hope everyone gets a chance to see.

Estimated time to see everything: About two hours.

For the kids: There are interesting things to be seen and enjoyed year-round by school-age children, but at the end of the year the museum also features exhibits of animal ornaments, doll houses, and model railroads that will be of interest to younger viewers as well. I highly recommend picking up the Family Guide in the museum store before you visit the galleries. At only $1.95, it is a fabulous bargain and will keep kids busy looking for details scattered through the collection, plus give them things to draw, color, and think about even after your visit is over. I have a copy if you would like to see it.

Details on hours, admission, directions, special exhibits, and other info can be found at the museum's web site, and a wonderful selection of works can be seen here.

NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: The Christian C. Sanderson Museum

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