[I originally wrote this report, part of a larger one on some performances and art exhibits, between 11-13 May 2004, years before I started ROT. Since the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has installed a new show, Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In, and the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on the artist (which I posted on ROT a few days ago), I decided to run this archival report on my visit, first, to the DuPont’s Winterthur, and then to the nearby Wyeth art museum, the Brandywine River Museum.]
Because my mother gave me a very heavy iron sculpture for my last birthday and I couldn’t fit it into the rental car last winter, we decided that she’d drive back to New York City with me in her car and we’d transport the sculpture then. We had been talking about visiting both Winterthur, the DuPont estate near Wilmington, Delaware, and the Brandywine River Museum, the former home and studio of the Wyeth family of painters (N.C.; his son, Andrew; Andrew’s sisters and brothers-in-law; and Jamie, Andrew’s son) in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—just over the border from Winterthur, about a half-hour drive away. The timing or the weather hadn’t been right every time we considered it, but I suggested that perhaps while I was in D.C. we could make one overnight or two day trips—both sites are about 1½-2 hours from D.C.—since I was going to be around for almost two weeks this time. Dates didn’t work out for a side trip while I was in D.C., so we decided to detour on the way to New York—it’s a short detour—and spend the night between the visits to Winterthur and the Wyeth museum. I found a motel in Wilmington that accepts pets (there are websites for this information!), and we made reservations for the three of us (!) and arranged for entry tickets for the two sites—the motel had a package for rooms plus the admissions; it was just easier that way. We loaded up the car with our stuff, the iron sculpture, and Thespis and drove north.
We got away a little later than we had hoped, but since we packed lunch, we stopped only for a pee-pee break and got to the motel about 2 p.m. or so. Winterthur is open until 5 p.m., so we unpacked a little, I walked my dog, Thespis, and got him settled in the room, we got (misleading) directions to the estate, and set out to see Winterthur. (There’s road construction, and the motel staff, though the place advertises its proximity to both sites—as well as the package deals—wasn’t too swift with directions to anywhere. Go know.) Anyway, we did get to Winterthur with enough time to see the estate and take one of the arranged tours. We ended up on the Elegant Entertaining tour which focuses on the dining and entertaining rooms and the china, silver, furniture, and more, used for that purpose displayed in those spaces.
To explain a bit—Winterthur is a huge estate. Not just the grounds, which are extensive (it used to have its own golf course!), but the building is immense. Plus it’s been added to many, many times since it was first built in the early 1800’s until it was turned over to the state as a museum in 1950. (The name Winterthur comes from Jacques Antoine Bidermann (1751-1817), a son-in-law of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours (1771-1834), the founder of the du Pont family and fortune in the United States. The son-in-law, who built the original house was Swiss German, and Winterthur was his hometown in Switzerland.) They don’t permit people just to arrive and wander about the house—the ticket gets you entry to the gardens and galleries (that is, the museum), but you have to purchase a tour to see the mansion itself. There’s no way to see all of it in one go (it has several hundred rooms, all told) so the tours are divided into themes. For instance, one focuses on the living quarters and another, as I said, on the entertaining facilities. I don’t remember all the other ones, but unless you have a special interest in something DuPont, it hardly matters—they all get you into the house to see parts of the mansion and the decorative items in it. The last DuPont to live at Winterthur, Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), was a collector of American decorative arts—furniture, porcelain, figurines, tea services, and so on—and the house is a museum in that respect. It can get overwhelming, but a lot of it is exquisite. The rich did live well before WWII (and not too shabbily since, I believe), but they don’t all have any taste. (Take, for instance, San Simeon: Hearst just bought stuff—a lot of it hideous!) But the DuPonts, especially the last guy who essentially turned the place into a museum (he built a “cottage” near the mansion for his family to live in so the collection could be displayed in the main house even before he opened it to the public), acquired some really lovely American crafts. Much of the collection dates back to Colonial and Revolutionary times (Revere silver, for instance), and the last DuPont at Winterthur had a thing about George Washington so there’s a lot of Washingtoniana in the collection—both stuff Washington owned (a set of china, for instance) and stuff that depicts Washington (a number of portraits, including some folk-art likenesses). According to our guide, DuPont was sort of obsessed with connecting his family to the founders of America because they first arrived here from France in the early 1800’s, after the Revolution and the founding of the nation.
I won’t detail all the various things in the house—that would sort of spoil a potential visit, and if you took a different tour, it would be irrelevant anyway. There’s so much stuff, anyway, that it’s really the overall impression that remains. There are a few remarkable items, however. In one room that’s decorated in a Chinese motif, with furniture modeled after Chinese designs and fabrics, the wallpaper is a hand-painted Chinese paper from the 18th century. DuPont found it unused in a warehouse someplace, having been imported then forgotten or abandoned for 150 years or so, and he bought it and installed it in this parlor. The paper, however, was taller than the room. Instead of trimming the paper as someone else might have done, though, DuPont raised the ceiling around the walls to accommodate the foot or so of extra paper height. (He didn’t actually raise the whole ceiling, just created a sort of reverse trench—I think it’s called wainscoting, but I’m not sure.) In another room—a kind of entrance gallery near the original front of the house (the main entrance was moved from one side to the other at some point during one remodeling), he installed a beautiful, graceful spiral staircase he shipped from a 19th-century North Carolina (I think—the south, anyway) home that was being demolished. The kick is that he waited until he and his family were on a world cruise to have the stairs installed at Winterthur so it was a surprise for his family when they got home. Better living through chemistry, indeed!
Aside from the mansion, there are acres and acres of landscaped grounds. DuPont’s other interest was farming and gardening, and Winterthur had been a working dairy farm for most of its existence. (The milk was reported to have been especially good, by the way. And Winterthur even had its own railroad station to take the milk into Wilmington for sale.) But the farm is no longer, of course, (though the railroad station is still standing) and the grounds are one garden or landscaped terrain after another. DuPont planted flowers in such a way that something was always in bloom at any time of the year, and the trees are of many varieties, including some exotic species imported from places like Japan. The basic entry ticket gets you into the garden, and there’s a half-hour tram ride around the grounds that’s included—a truly delightful treat on a spring or summer day. You can also walk the grounds—there are trails and paths, and places to stop and sit—all planned by DuPont for his own enjoyment and that of his guests. You can also dismount the tram at several places to poke around a children’s fantasy garden or some special area and then get back on—the driver will wait. We did this ride at the end of our visit and it was a really nice way to end the day. It was only unfortunate that we were there so early in the spring that most of the gardens weren’t in flower yet.
It is a peculiarity of the Winterthur set-up that though your tour admission is only good on the day you buy it (I don’t know if you can reserve in advance—you can the basic entry, obviously, since that’s what we had done), but the gallery-and-garden ticket, the basic admission thing, is good for two days, so you can come back the next day if you want. We did that—instead of driving off to Chadds Ford immediately the next morning, we stopped at Winterthur—there’s a route to Chadds Ford that goes right by the estate entrance, so it’s not even off the route—to do the galleries, which, as I indicated, is the museum. After the drive from D.C. and the tour of the mansion, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to trudge the galleries, see the garden—even on the tram—and check out the soup tureens (I’ll pick that up in a moment—I forgot it), so we took advantage of the return policy. The galleries are exhibits of furniture-making and styles, painting techniques, and other craft work. (There’s even an entire 19th-century furniture and clock workshop, house and all, from Long Island on display.) There are also changing exhibits which are more or less interesting depending on what’s on and what you’re interested in. There’s also a little film about life at Winterthur that’s interesting and kind of sorts out what you’ve seen (or will see, depending on the order of your visit).
Now, that soup tureen exhibit: Believe it or not, it’s Campbell Soup’s collection of tureens. It used to be at the Campbell factory in Camden, New Jersey, but when the factory closed, the collection was given to Winterthur and it’s housed in its own gallery off the terrace behind the mansion where the garden tram picks up and lets off passengers. And believe it or not, it’s an interesting exhibit. There are tureens from as early as the 18th century up to contemporary designs—both silver or gilt and porcelain. Some are whimsical—a lot of animals—and some are truly elegant. We checked this out while we were waiting for the garden tram, which worked out perfectly. It’s a nice little lagniappe.
From Winterthur on the second visit, we drove along the two-lane highway north to Pennsylvania and Chadds Ford. It’s a very pleasant drive, especially on a nice day. (There are some strip malls at the beginning of the road—before Winterthur—but afterwards, it’s just countryside and little towns for the half hour to 45 minutes it takes. It’s much nicer than either the Interstate, or the larger highway from Wilmington north to Pennsylvania we’d have taken if we hadn’t returned to Winterthur—which is all strip malls and fast-food outlets without respite. And I suspect the driving time is the same, so why not take the pleasanter route?
Obviously, a visit to the Wyeth museum is most interesting if you have an interest in the Wyeths’ art. I don’t, really, but since I do have an interest in contemporary art in general, it was worth the short ride and a couple of hours stop along the way. The Wyeth family is a phenomenon, of course: three generations of successful artists. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) was most famous as an illustrator, especially of boys’ adventure books. (His fortune, and the money with which he bought the Chadds Ford property, came from his illustrations for Treasure Island back in the early years of the last century. His illustrations, for both books and magazine stories, are on display in one gallery, and many of the books are still in print with his pictures and cover art. You can buy copies in the museum shop, wouldn’t ya know.) Andrew (1917-2009), of course, was a big name in contemporary art for years, and he even made a big splash not long before his death with the Helga series—the portraits of his long-time model and mistress. Andrew’s two sisters (Carolyn, 1909-94; Henriette, 1907-97) and their husbands (respectively: Franceso Joseph Delle Donne, 1919–2007; Peter Hurd, 1904-84) were far less well-known than he was, but they all had careers in art and some of their works are on display at the Brandywine River Museum, too. Finally, Andrew’s son, Jamie (James, formally; b. 1946) is currently enjoying renown in the field, though not as great as his dad’s. (He may be best known for a series of portraits he did of Nureyev—some of them were once exhibited at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—for which he followed the dancer around for months or years and watched him perform and rehearse. There’s a whole gallery of Jamie’s works, including many of the Nureyev paintings.)
Most of the museum is devoted to the Wyeths, of course, but there are other galleries—it’s three stories high, with several galleries on each floor—one with Hudson River School works and one of other illustrators (in some cases with both the original drawing alongside the published version). However, what makes the museum worth a short trip if you are at Winterthur anyway is that it’s such a lovely setting. The museum is modern, built into the building that was N.C. Wyeth’s studio (and home, I believe), and the galleries are like spokes off a round corridor on each floor, but the place was a farm, so it’s surroundings are rural and wooded, with a creek that runs by the back of the museum. The circular corridors are all glassed in with long expanses of windows looking out over the wooded creek, but more delightful is the little cafeteria (we arrived in time for a late lunch, which we had before viewing the galleries) which looks right out at the creek, near an old bridge, and there are several bronze sculptures reposing along the creek bank just below the cafeteria windows. (Amusingly, the bronze sculptures are a cow and a pig—Miss Gratz by J. Clayton Bright, 1984, and Helen by André Harvey, 1989; the Wyeths weren’t sculptors.) Even if you’re not particularly interested in the Wyeths’ painting, the Brandywine River Museum itself is a nice place to stop. (You can even skip the galleries if you are really uninterested, and avoid paying the entrance fee—I don’t recall how much that was, since we booked the tix in advance through the motel in Wilmington—and just have lunch in the cafeteria and watch the creek roll by.)
The museum has a side tour to a nearby farm where Andrew painted, but we skipped that both because it was more than we wanted to see and because we were pretty touristed-out by then. (Remember, we had stopped at Winterthur again on the way up.) I gather there are a few—but not many—of his paintings there, too, but it’s mostly the old barn he painted (as a subject—he wasn’t a house-painter) and used as a studio that’s of tourist interest. The art is all at the museum for the most part. I wouldn’t recommend this as a trip in itself (unless, of course, you are a Wyeth fan—then definitely it’s worth a special trip), but it’s worth making what amounts to a stop on the way to or from New Jersey/New York if you go to Winterthur. (As I think I indicated above, you can return to New Jersey without going past Winterthur and through Chadds Ford. There are two routes: one is backtracking to I‑95 and getting back on the road across the Delaware Memorial Bridge and onto the Jersey pike; the other is to follow the U.S. highway—I think it’s 202, but I’d have to look at a map again to be sure—the road off 95 that takes you into Wilmington, north to U.S. 1 and going east (it’s designated “north” because 1 is a north-south road) across the Commodore Barry Bridge (across the Delaware River at Philly) and getting on the pike farther north than the Delaware Memorial. (Chadds Ford is on U.S. 1—the museum is right off the road—but west/south of the intersection with the highway. In other words, if you go the “scenic” route—that other highway is one strip mall after another—you also end up on U.S. 1, just a little further back. It’s an insignificant distance, however.)
[Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In runs from 4 May through 30 November at the National Gallery of Art, (202) 737-4215; www.nga.gov.]