Picks and Pans Review: Andrew Wyeth: a Secret Life

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Richard Meryman

Andrew Wyeth finished Christina's World in 1948. The portrait of a woman lying in a field, gazing toward a distant farmhouse, is one of the best-known American paintings of our century and made its creator a star at age 31. Nearly 50 years later, a compelling biography reveals Wyeth's world. Don't expect a pretty picture.

According to Meryman, Wyeth's universe is, and has always been, lonely—much like Christina's—and steeped in repressed fury. Wyeth's father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was a benevolent tyrant, dominating his five children while encouraging them to be geniuses by allowing into the house "only the best music, the best poetry," in Meryman's words. Against his father's wishes, Andrew married at 22, but he was substituting one ruler for another. His wife, Betsy, assumed control over his life and work, and while he relied on her fine critical eye, he also needed to escape it. At least that's the explanation Meryman offers for the 15-year period when Wyeth regularly snuck off to paint his Pennsylvania neighbor Helga Testerf—most often in the nude.

Was Helga his mistress? Wyeth, who cooperated with Meryman for this biography, is cagey. When his wife demanded to know if the two had had an affair, he replied, "Don't be ridiculous, Betsy. You know me better than that." Meryman, a former editor at LIFE, has known the reclusive artist and his clan for 30 years and so cannot be objective about them, sketching a family picture with soap-opera overtones instead of a balanced portrait. Only occasionally does the real Wyeth, who made everything in his life serve his art, come into focus. (HarperCollins, $35)

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