Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures

by John Wilmerding

Other authorsAndrew Wyeth (Painter)
Hardcover, 1987

Call number

759.1 WILMER



Harry N Abrams Inc (1987), Edition: 1st, 208 pages


Presents the more than 240 works from the collection of Leonard Andrews. These works center around one model, Helga Testorf, a neighbor in Chadds Ford, that Wyeth worked on in virtual secrecy for a decade and a half.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jphamilton
I ordered this book after recently watching Jesse Brass’s short documentary film, Helga, again. The subject of that film, Helga Testorf, was a model that American artist Andrew Wyeth worked with in secret for fifteen years (from 1971 to 1986)—at a time when even his wife Betsy, who worked as
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his business manager, was left in the dark. This extremely well-done book from Harry N. Abrams Inc. was released in 1987, around a year after the 240 portraits first came to light. On a personal note, my late wife, Vicky, and I were still in that all-consuming first year of running our first independent bookstore, but I well remember the shock and awe that those nude portraits created in the media. It was big news because she was nude in some of them and posing in secret for such a major American artist. Oh, scandal. That everyone feels free to pass judgement on complete strangers is just human nature, but then and now, I just fell back to the fascinating art that he had created. Helga spoke of the spiritual nature of their relationship and left it at that. Once, while explaining the series of paintings, Wyeth said, "The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models ... I have to become enamored. Smitten. That's what happened when I saw Helga."

As to the book itself, I am very impressed by its appearance, its structure, and its quality feel. First there is a foreword by J. Carter Brown (Director of the National Gallery of Art), and then a very personal essay by Leonard E. B. Andrews, the man who after looking at the portraits in the second story of a restored 18th century gristmill on Wyeth’s Pennsylvania complex, immediately agreed to purchase this “large private collection.” His up close and personal description of that day with his friends Andy and Betsy (Wyeth’s wife) was deliciously casual for such a monumental deal in the art world. As Andrews said, “I have been asked many times what I was told about Helga when I bought the collection. The truth is, I never asked about her. I consider the relationship between any model and artist to be a professional one of their own making and important to the finished work of art, and I respect that.” The longer text by John Wilmerding (Deputy Director of the National of Art in Washington) is an excellent and insightful text with illustrations that well showcases what were Wyeth’s major influences, motivations, and describes his artwork wonderfully. Wyeth once said, “I admire Edward Hopper more than any painter living today.” Andrews goes on to explain Wyeth’s unique technique of drybrush watercolor, in which much of the moisture is squeezed out of the brush’s bristles and the painting is created layer upon layer, almost like a weaving.

The portraits are grouped by similar looks and poses, with the pencil sketches and earlier watercolors seemingly leading him to the more finished pictures. There are so many sketches, some quickly done, others much more detailed, and you can see him getting closer and closer to the major works he did of Helga. To have so many pictures (238 in all, including 164 pencil sketches, 63 watercolors, 4 temperas, and 9 drybrush), it’s an insightful study of Helga over the fifteen years that he painted her, when she was 38 to 53 years old. The more I looked at them, especially the many nudes, the more I became so extremely jealous of having such a record of a woman that obviously meant so much to him. Occasionally, interspersed among the portraits, there are very telling quotes from Wyeth about his feelings about art, depictions of people, and the landscape.

Allow me to share a few of Wyeth’s quotes and the paintings they were near.

“I think anything like that—which is contemplative, silent, shows a person alone—peoples always feel sad. Is it because we’ve lost the art of being alone?” (Seated by a Tree)

“There are always new emotions in going back to something that I know very well. I suppose this is very odd, because most people have to find fresh things to paint. I’m actually bored by fresh things to paint.” (Asleep)

“People talk to me about the mood of melancholy in my pictures. Now, I do have this feeling that time passes—a yearning to hold something—which might strike people as sad.” (Drawn Shade)

“I think one’s art goes as far and deep as one’s love goes.” (Overflow)

I find this book so wonderfully close and personal, while at the same time I never felt like I was intruding on something that should have remained private between the artist and model—it’s a very curious line and the book pulls it off perfectly.
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