The Artist’s Widow – An Interview

Andrew Wyeth is most famous for the painting featured in this post, entitled Christina’s World. Wyeth’s detractors claim that the painter staged a “discovery”of hundreds of illicit, decades old paintings of his own making, featuring his muse and lover, Helga Testorf.

The following is the transcript of an interview with the widow of the famous painter, Andrew Wyeth. The few inquisitive prompts I made to Mrs. Wyeth are not included in the transcript, as they were largely irrelevant and inconsequential in the answers that followed.


You’ve asked me to respond to a controversial painting of my husband’s, and I wonder if you are aware of the implications and depth you are truly inquiring into. Christina’s World, more than any of the infamous Helga Paintings, is like a cruel metaphor for the true circumstances – the true yearning – I have kept so deep inside me, and the debilitated woman on the ground illustrates all too vividly the crippled aspect of our marriage. It wasn’t polio or Charcot-Marie Tooth disease, however, that took my legs, my love and my freedom; it was the inconstancy of the spouse I once adored.

I have kept his secret all these years. I never once spoke out or even questioned him about his comings and goings. It seemed ever essential to Andy’s cause to have the freedom to move about uninhibited in this way. Over time, this simply became “the way we were,” and the nature of our marriage afforded me its liberties, as well. Even had I the nerve to raise protest over his ways, I am certain that nothing good would have come of it; indeed, after a time, I found myself truly enjoying the arrangement for my own personal reasons.

For those who might malign me for this course of action, and my abject lack of curiosity as to my husband’s affairs, all I can say is this: the historical account of my life as pertains to the peculiarities of men has shown me a course that is far preferable to any tirades or other such indignities I may have indulged in instead.

In my youth, I often wondered how my mother could endure the frequent tirades and demands of my father. The wisdom as exemplified by her attitudes has remained true in the face of my own peculiar predicament, and I am grateful for the example she provided me in childhood through her marriage in preparation for my own marriage.

For fifteen years, I kept his secret. At first, I had Andrew convinced that I was oblivious to the goings-on at the Kuerner family farmhouse. There were no daily explanations or awkward exchanges between us; I did not desire this. Why toil and pine in the name of a man who, while most assuredly guilty of infidelity and selfishness, had done nothing more than what had been absolutely true to his own nature? This, I believe is the highest challenge in a marriage: accepting your spouse for exactly who they are and who they become in the course of your life together, without any hope of having any effect to change that person.

That’s not to say that this epiphany, this transformation, comes to one without its fair share of pain; but in time, any practical person comes to the conclusion that indulging in such self-pity and similarly morose habits is utterly useless, and worse still, utterly unproductive. I could not have managed my husband’s career with any amount of skill or intelligence had I allowed such useless emotion to invade our affairs. Strong emotion can cloud judgement, making a fool of even the wisest woman; I was, and am now, determined never to be such a fool.

The irony is that Andy really was, in some fashion, the con artist everyone now accuses him of being, but not in any way they may have guessed; it was not money that drove him, nor was it Andy’s motivation to “hide” the Helga Paintings for some post-mortem sensationalism. His motivations were – in that respect at least – pure. Those paintings were his own secret treasure; he did not want to share them with the world. He was possessive of them, really, even against the modeled subject that they portrayed. Helga Testorf believed for all those years that he kept the 250 or so paintings hidden because of some romantic notion of Andy’s, as though their love was sacred. Therein lies the horrific irony that few have come to grasp in the story of my husband’s life: he loved no one more than himself, by far. He used poor Helga as surely as he used me, and denied her the dignity of truth, even to the very end.

It’s no wonder then, that this story of a “con-artist-artist” has made such a sensationalist impression on the art community at large. He trained this woman, Helga, through whispered endearments and other love-lies, to propagate these far-fetched, romantic ideas. I believe he really thought it would work, too. I suppose on some level that it has, but the character of notoriety that my husband achieved as a result of his scheming is not what he had idealized. Seldom do things turn out the way we plan.

The truth is, Andy used those paintings, too. He used them to make every other painting. He used them for inspiration and courage. It is impossible for anyone to imagine the strain an artist is under to create something beautiful; if not every time, then most of the time. I understand this as I understand anything at all in this world. Andy’s secret treasure trove of illicit paintings of Helga, because it was hidden, secret – and perhaps a bit nefarious – was like a dream he could step into, free from the attitudes and impressions of any other man or woman alive. This is why the secrecy and infidelity were of such great importance to him, and why I allowed – no encouraged – him to maintain that fiction in our married life together.

The following conversation was dictated to me at this point in the interview by Mrs. Wyeth, written down on a legal pad, like a story in her own words. I have retained the narrative quality of her original composition, as I believe that it illustrates her point well in this form.

The conversations between us – Andy and I – which I recall now are, at best incredible. No one could imagine the things that we had spoken to each other in those thick moments.  When I joined Andrew in life, I stepped out of reality and into a universe where he ruled, like some wild bird of prey where all others were mice.

“Why did you come with me?” he would often demand, at the strangest times, it seemed to me then.

I recall one such occasion after afternoon tea – we had eaten cucumber sandwiches with our usual Earl Grey. He was forever asking me why I had left my home with my father to marry him and move to Maine.

“You know why,” was my accustomed, formulaic response.

On this particular occasion, I began my retort with a half-hearted smile in my teeth, but my face slowly resumed its solemn position from before. I remember it so vividly because of the effort that it cost me to smile in spite of my doubts. This, I knew, was a man who had no time for coquetry or whimsy. He had an intensity that could blind. In these times, he could hardly take anything in at all except to scorn it all at once.

“Yes. I do know,” he would say to me. And then, always: “Say it.”

“I came with you because… because I couldn’t do anything else.” Because you’re like the sun shining through a cloud, I had wanted to say, blinding and horribly alluring, too.

            But his ego was not so easily assuaged. “And…?”

What do you want from me? I thought.

“…And I need you. I love you.” I deliberately smiled through my eyelashes to seal the deal.

I had said the only thing that would end these endless interrogations. It always stopped his demands to tell him that I needed him, loved him. He often wore a look, then, that seemed to suggest he was contemplating the possibility of my words. He wanted to believe me, so badly – I could see this very plainly in the lines of his brow and the slightly lessened stiffness of his posture – but I fear he had no concept of this love, which stems from somewhere so near to your innermost place that it creates a vacuum once given. I do not mean that love creates a void, but rather, that it makes a place for something to come into you that you must accept as your own, even though it had once been theirs. Every lover you take in this way is like a set of truths, some of them beautiful, some not; but, either way, this set of their truths is yours now, too.

At this point, Mrs. Wyeth expressed her desire to resume the interview as before.

It was always enough for me that the questions had ended. I was not interested in maintaining perfect lucidity, perfect candidness in our dealings. I am not a scientist to demand such empirical evidence to mandate my course going forward. I prefer, rather, to take a more pragmatic approach, which addresses the nature of the persons involved, namely Andy and myself; and who can say that there even is a perfect truth to be found in any person? If we are but the culmination of our experiences, then we must also, by necessity, change and adapt from one moment to the next, as the situation demands. This is what we did. We adapted, and all was well between us, more often than not.

There are times, however, particularly when I look at this painting, Christina’s World, and it all comes back in a great tide of female sentimentality. I sense myself sitting there. The sky above the grassy field is gray, like her thoughts had become, and I am transformed into something small and quiet. My father, at these times, seemed so far away, in another world with bright blue skies.  I know that I should not think of that now. The act of contemplating the warmth and innocence that I have left behind would swallow me whole with nothing but a flood of useless tears to show for it.  As if I am seventeen again, I look at this painting, and say goodbye to the library and the farmhouse. Goodbye to the father whose heart was boundless with love; and now that Andrew has died, Goodbye to the man who had taken my heart and my body with little regard to the woman inside. Goodbye, for now, to everything but this familiar landscape under a dim gray sky.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that he used my torso instead of Christine’s, as a model for the painting? Why do you suppose he did this? It’s true that Christine Olsen herself was much older than me, and did not present as alluring a profile in her advanced age; but it is undeniably meant to be her. She had a crippling disease which left her crawling from place to place, often witnessed ambulating, as it were, in this very posture. Andy found this beautiful, and I could not in my heart consider it perverse. After all, Christine, herself, did not consider her unique circumstances to be pitiable in any way, and I would not do her the injustice of condemning her, by pitying her even internally, in this way. I honored her decision by assuming full-hearted agreement with it, which I believe was the only correct thing to do.

This is why Andy said the things he did, about the inspiration for the painting. The scorn of his detractors, on this issue, at least, seemed so foolish to me. He gave the press and the art community what it had wanted of him, in the description of Christine herself, but the true sentiment of his words was all but lost completely lost in the retelling of his words. Thus, they became more and more trite by measures as the press handled and re-handled his comments with less than perfect accuracy or regard for their true context.

I will not speak to the lurid details of my husband’s affair with Mrs. Testorf.

At this point, Mrs. Wyeth became visibly upset and rather quiet. We paused at this point long enough to allow her to compose herself. I asked Mrs. Wyeth if she wished to terminate the interview at this point, but she declined.

I will not speak of these details because the story is not mine to tell. I can tell you the account of my own experience, my reactions to these occurrences, even my feelings on them. But I believe that the story of these details – I believe this is not the important thing. And no matter what lurid importance others might like to place on such things, I do not. It is not the physical, sexual details that cause me such pain, rather it is the lost opportunity – the tragic loss of self – that I regret now. In my decision to marry an artist, so in love with beauty and in love with himself, I traded an aspect of myself for that life. To those who have never married anyone of an artistic temperament, such a thing is difficult to conceive. It’s almost as though there is only room for one such person – the one who discovers, wanders, rages and flounders – and their partner must be the one to stand still, to be a steady and safe place for the artist to come home to. In an extreme case of artistic genius, such as Andrew’s, this is even more so, and the circumstances even more exaggerated. It never occurred to him whether I was suited for this role, but as luck would have it, I was; even if, from time to time, I do still dream my own wild dreams of self-discovery.

I believe it important to note that the self-possession and honesty demonstrated by Mrs. Wyeth were remarkable throughout her account. I did not, at any point, solicit any information from her in particular; instead I allowed her to determine the course of her own dialogue in an effort to uncover only those things which she deemed most pertinent to disclose.

 


Note to Readers:

This piece is loosely based on research gathered from several historical and current articles on this topic. This creative piece was inspired by the true circumstances of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth’s lives, with particular attention to two of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. The interviewer’s commentary and Mrs. Wyeth’s interview dialogue are completely a work of creative writing, and do not reflect any true sentiment expressed by Mrs. Betsy Wyeth.

Sources:

“Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World. 1948 | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2017.

Bashaw, Molly. “Posing Nude for Andrew Wyeth.” Beloit Poetry Journal, vol. 62, no. 4, Summer2012, pp. 32-35. EBSCOhost.

Duggan, Bob. “How Michael Palin Broke the Silence of The Helga Paintings.” Big Think. Big Think & Big Think Edge, 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2017.

Editorial, Artsy, and Zachary Small. “The Controversial Story behind Andrew Wyeth’s Most Famous Painting.” Artsy. N.p., 31 Aug. 2017. Web. 01 Nov. 2017.

Green, James, et al. Andrew Wyeth : Christina’s World. [Streaming Video]. Germany : ArtHaus Musik, 2012., 2012. Academic Video Online Premium. EBSCOhost.

Gustason, Harriett. “Looking Back: A Diary: An Intimate View of Life in 1940s.” Journal Standard. Journal Standard, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2017.

Knight, Christopher. “How Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Helga’ Went Viral.” Los Angeles Times. LA Times, 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 04 Nov. 2017.

McEuen, Melissa A. “Women, Gender, and World War II.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Oxford University Press, 08 June 2017. Web. 01 Nov. 2017.

Pearson, Steve. “What Happened in 1948 Important News and Events, Key Technology and Popular Culture.” The People History. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 201

Wyeth, Andrew. Christina’s World. 1948. Tempera on Panel. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

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