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One-of-a-kind museum tours

From a family of artists, Victoria Wyeth, 29, great-granddaughter of N.C. Wyeth, only grandchild of Andrew Wyeth and niece of Jamie Wyeth, gives tours six days a week at the Brandywine River Museum.
Wyeth Granddaughter Tours
Victoria Wyeth guides a tour group at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., earlier this month. Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's clear this isn't the typical tour of a museum with major works of art when the guide sidles up to a painting and begins: "I'll never forget it. We're having cheeseburgers across the street at Hank's and he's telling me about this one."

The guide with the ultimate insider's knowledge is Victoria Wyeth, 29, great-granddaughter of N.C. Wyeth, only grandchild of Andrew Wyeth and niece of Jamie Wyeth. And her popular talks are equal parts art lesson, gossip session and peek inside the clan often called the first family of American art.

Six days a week she gives her one-of-a-kind tours at the Brandywine River Museum, a converted 19th-century grist mill with a permanent collection that includes hundreds of works by three generations of Wyeths.

"What's nice about art is you can take what you want from it. I'm just here to provide a little context," she tells visitors one recent day, during the first of her two daily 30-minute tours.

Her first session this day includes the works of Andrew Wyeth, 91, and his son Jamie, 61; the second focuses solely on the elder Wyeth. The works discussed vary, depending in part on the age of the group following her.

"So few artists actually write what they're thinking about in their pictures," she says, "and you're in art history and your teacher's telling you, 'This is what da Vinci thought' and you think, 'How do you know?'"

Tall and slender, gregarious and in constant motion, Wyeth regales those on her popular tours with unscripted stories about what inspired the paintings and the unconventional ways they came to be.

How did her uncle Jamie recreate the texture of his 600-pound sow Den-Den's hide in the famous life-size "Portrait of Pig"? He dragged his fingernails through the wet paint.

Why has her grandfather painted the same people and places all his life — shouldn't he have gone to Paris or something? "He says, 'Listen, if you can find inspiration in the same person for 50 years, the same tree, that's the test of an artist: to find different ways of painting the same thing,'" she recounts to the group.

But the answers to two questions she hears most frequently are:

"My grandfather is not dead. I'm sure, because I just saw him."

"I don't paint. You either have it or you don't, and it was very clear that I didn't."

Known to her family as "Vic," she is the daughter of Nicholas Wyeth — an art dealer and the older of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth's two sons — and art consultant Jane Wyeth.

She started giving Wyeth-centric tours at age 15 for the Farnsworth Museum in Maine, graduated from nearby Bates College and later got a master's degree in clinical psychology from Wesleyan University.

Her other job at an area mental hospital means she doesn't summer in Maine with her grandparents and uncle — all of whom have homes mere minutes from the museum. "Everyone goes except me. I'm the one with the normal job," she says with a laugh.

If some wouldn't define such a career as "normal," neither would they consider hers a typical family.

With relish and to the delight of her audience, Victoria Wyeth talks about the quirks of her artistic family: how her grandfather "fell in love with a tree" last summer in Maine; her uncle's beloved barnyard menagerie; the family affection — or obsession — with Halloween.

"You could be 95 and we still expect you to dress up," she says.

The tales of her famous family are enthusiastically received by museum-goers.

"They're interesting, fun things you'd never find in an art book," says visitor Sylvia Rossi, of Wilmington, Del. "To hear firsthand about the person in a painting, or the place it was painted, it just makes you look at everything in a different way."

Just as important to her is bringing the audience's reactions home. On a recent day, Wyeth is thrilled by a woman's response to her grandfather's just-finished tempera, "Goose Step," hung just hours earlier.

"When the lady started clapping, it was wonderful," she says. "That's what's so incredible — now I can go home and tell him that. He'll be so excited."

Following that tour, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth paid one of their frequent visits to the museum to see how that brand-new painting looked on the wall.

Bundled in a long down coat to ward off the unseasonably cold and damp weather, he beams as he steps off the museum's second-floor elevator and his granddaughter greets him with a kiss. Museum employees swiftly and quietly mobilize to ensure the artist's well-known desire for privacy is maintained as he enters the gallery.

"He's 91. He doesn't do interviews anymore," his granddaughter explains. "He says, 'Vic, everything I have to say is on the walls.'"