Art: Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret

The Helga collection, a hidden treasure trove

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Andrew and Betsy Wyeth are the picture of relaxed domesticity as they welcome a visitor to the lighthouse they call home on Southern Island, a 22-acre retreat off the coast of Maine. Tanned and fit, with the kind of face the Romans used to impress on coins, Wyeth, 69, wears a beige sailor's sweater and beige twill pants; his silver-blond hair is closely cropped, like any good sea captain's. Wyeth has been out painting this morning, as he has done every morning for 50 years. "I'm like a prostitute," he says, laughing. "I'm never off duty." As he chats with TIME's Cathy Booth in the living room, Betsy, 64, bustles about merrily nearby, rattling the dishes and deflecting phone calls intended for her husband. When the two pose for pictures, they ham it up with gusto. He kneels to propose marriage, and she says, "Here we are, a couple of old survivors."

They are indeed: 46 years together as husband and wife. "I was a cradle snatcher," he notes gleefully of the woman he met when she was 17. The commitment they display toward each other is wholly intertwined in their shared devotion to his work -- the spare, meticulous, compassionate vision that has made Wyeth both a beloved icon to American museumgoers and a nettlesome anachronism to the art establishment. So the Wyeths are girded to ride out, with grace and tweaking good humor, the storm of publicity that broke around them last week, created by a score of press releases sent out to advertise a scoop in Art & Antiques magazine.

It was some scoop. For 15 years, from 1970 to 1985, Wyeth had labored in secret on an enormous collection of works: 246 in all, including sketches, studies, drawings, 32 watercolors, twelve drybrush paintings and five temperas. Not even his wife was aware of the magnitude of the undertaking. Moreover, almost all of them were of a middle-aged German whom Wyeth identified only as Helga and who lived near the Wyeths' winter home in Chadds Ford, Pa. Artist and model met in various places over the years, and the resulting works, many of them nudes, are streaked with an intensity both clinical and erotic. Here was the hidden treasure of a major artist -- the most hallowed member of America's reigning art dynasty -- displaying new vigor late in his career.

But the secrets piled on top of secrets lent a lurid glow that was not in the paintings. And the Wyeths, inadvertently or intentionally, added to the titillation. His decision to try to protect the privacy of Helga made the suspicious more so. And Art & Antiques reports that when Betsy Wyeth was asked what the works were about and why her husband had kept them secret, she took a long, pensive pause and replied, "Love." Did Betsy mean that the artist, known for his continuing and intimate relationships with the subjects of his paintings, was having an affair with his model? Or could it be that Betsy's public hint of that affair was part of an elaborate strategy to woo media attention and thus inflate both the price of the works and the value of Wyeth's middlebrow eminence? There were no immediate, incontrovertible answers, but the story's hold on the popular imagination proved that Wyeth is still the one artist whose style and personality can tantalize America. Through cunning or coincidence, Wyeth is a singular mixture: old master and master showman.

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