Art: Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret

The Helga collection, a hidden treasure trove

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Every artist undresses his subject, whether human or still life. It is his business to find essences in surfaces, and what more attractive and challenging surface than the skin around a soul? No proof of cupidity there. This, at least, was the feeling of Wyeth's fiercely protective neighbors in Chadds Ford as they were besieged by reporters last week. The locals understand the artist-model relationship, and they figure they know Andy Wyeth. So dismissive are they of any charge of infidelity that they are willing to entertain -- and be entertained by -- the possibility of a Wyeth scam. "This whole thing could be a ploy," said Karl J. Kuerner III, who lives on top of Kuerner Hill, where Wyeth frequently sketched his grandparents. An employee at the Brandywine called it the "best stunt I've ever seen."

Despite the professions of ignorance by most of Helga's neighbors, reporters eventually found her house across the road from the Kuerners', learned that her name is Helga Testorf, that she is now 54 and that she is married with four children and two grandchildren. (A daughter, Carmen, figures in a few works in the Helga series.) Her teenage son has been guarding the property and turning away reporters, and the tension weighing on him was visible. He was near tears as he said he wanted to protect his mother from being hurt. Told she was the subject for a famous artist's work, he said, "It doesn't do me any good, does it?" Helga, a fugitive from her sudden notoriety, was not to be seen. Carolyn Wyeth describes this quiet, almost reclusive woman as extremely upset by the tumult but flattered by the paintings: "She thinks they're wonderful." The neighbors' sympathy for her, though, is no match for their affection for Andy Wyeth. What he did for love, they say, is paint.

One art professional who knows both Wyeths finds multiple meanings in Betsy's use of the word: "It means his love of creating and being an artist. It means his self-esteem and his need to break new ground. It means the love of theater and drama, which has always been a part of his life. It does not mean that he was having an affair with Helga. Oh, yes, Betsy knew that using ; the word love would make the wags wag. They both have a marvelous way of teasing. But if he were having an affair, she would be the last one to go public about it. She would be protective of herself. And he would not want it to be presumed that he was having an affair with any of his models. When he finds a model relationship that fires up creative energy, he finds that very very exciting. And that's all that happened with Helga."

Back on Southern Island, Wyeth has turned away most requests for interviews, but did meet with TIME's Booth last Thursday. He declines to discuss Helga or her paintings, but he wants to clarify Betsy's use of the word love in relation to them. "People are going to think, particularly with this group of paintings, that it's a sexual love. It's not. We think of love only as two human beings in love. But it isn't in love. It's love. It's love toward an object. It can be a love toward those shells," he says, pointing nearby. "It's a love of warmth, of finding something precious. It's like a wonderful animal, a dog that will come up and sit in your lap and you pet its head. This is something we've lost. A lot of people will take my wife's statement wrong, but I think it's very beautiful and real."

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