The Lure of the Brandywine

"Indian Hanna" by George "Frolic" Weymouth

For more than two centuries, the Brandywine Valley has been celebrated for its picturesque streams, rich farmlands, dazzling gardens, the abundance of mills and its distinctive architecture. 

The Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art provides a fascinating look at the art of the region in its current exhibition, “Lure of the Brandywine: A Story of Land Conservation and Artistic Inspiration.” Seen through the lens of land conservation, it pays homage to generations of top-flight artists who have drawn inspiration from its natural beauty and its historic sites.

The show celebrates the dual mission of Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art: to display art from the Brandywine region and to preserve the environment. Organized by an interdepartmental team of staff members, the exhibit runs through August 10.

“The core of our mission is to protect the Brandywine watershed and associated waterways. Our programs focus on a multifaceted approach to conservation, aimed to preserve and restore water quality and quantity,” said Sherri Evans-Stanton, director of the Brandywine Conservancy.

“We work to save farmland and historic properties, plan and manage land use, promote reforestation and use of native plants, and create trail networks,” she added.

Linked to Conservancy programs

The selected 45 works of art convey a strong sense of the region’s distinctive identity and include a number of important loans, as well as works from the museum’s rich holdings in landscape painting.

Organized in groups, the paintings illustrate the primary environmental programs of the Brandywine Conservancy: Saving Agricultural Lands, Protecting Historic Structures, Enhancing Water Quality, Connecting Trails and Greenways, Preserving Scenic Character, and Conserving Natural Resources.

“Lure of the Brandywine” underscores the innate link between the artists’ appreciation of the region’s natural beauty and the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art’s commitment to ensuring that legacy for generations to come.

Take, for example, N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for a poem entitled “Back to the Farm.” Painted in Chadds Ford in 1907, it was one of a number of scenes that originally accompanied the poem by Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi and appeared in the August 1908 issue of Scribner Magazine. The artwork sprang from Wyeth’s strong emotional response to the area’s natural beauty and from the value he placed on a way of life so enmeshed with the natural world.

Plowing fields remained a essential aspect of farming until the late 20th century, but in truth it actually exacerbates soil erosion and the loss of nutrient-dense topsoil. Locally, the Brandywine Conservancy works with farmers to improve land stewardship by embracing more modern practices. One of these, no-till farming, reduces soil disturbance, resulting in less soil erosion, more water infiltration and richer, more productive soils.

Old-timey pictures

It’s a revelation to see the old-time Brandywine pictures, especially the work of artists who traveled widely in pursuit of a vanishing wilderness frontier. One of the earliest landscapes is Thomas Doughty’s “View on the Brandywine, Gilpin’s Paper Mill.” Doughty (1793-1856) provides a romantic view of the the river, rendered with his characteristically fragile and lyric approach. Another is a sparkling autumn river scene by Jasper F. Cropsey (1823-1900).

A generation later we find William Trost Richards (1833-1905) who was also drawn to the beauty of the rural countryside. Visitors will see a trio of Richards’ vigorous and imposing landscape paintings. The works were painted while the peripatetic Richards lived on his Coatesville farm in the 1880s.

Moving into the 20th century, the contemporary works are dominated by the Wyeth clan, the prestigious family of painters whose works are the thrust of the museum’s collection. Works by Andrew Wyeth, and his father, N. C., sisters Carolyn and Henrietta, son Jamie and brother-in-law John McCoy. Visitors will also find the works of current artists of the region, including George “Frolic” Weymouth’s Indiana Hanna (1990), Frank Delle Donne’s “Landscape with a Tree” and “The Way Back (1963) and James McGlynn’s “Breck Mills” (1978).

Through these gifted artists’ eyes and skilled hands, the pastoral Brandywine Valley comes alive while delivering thought-provoking connections to the Conservancy’s activities, which have preserved more than 59,000 acres of scenic and natural resources, farmland and historic properties.

The sparkling exhibition convinces us that the Brandywine Valley merits full-length treatment as a theme show.

Wyeth Studio Earns Preservation Award

Along with the exhibition, the organization received accolades this year from a Philadelphia-based preservation group.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia selected the Andrew Wyeth Studio, owned by the Brandywine Conservancy in Chadds Ford, as an award winner for the 2014 Preservation Achievement Grand Jury Award. The studio was among 15 projects selected by a panel of historic preservation experts to receive this year’s award.

Built in 1875, the studio where Andrew Wyeth’s famous paintings came to life for nearly 70 years was originally a remote one-room stone schoolhouse. Thousands of works of art are associated with this studio, including those inspired by the farms and open space of the Brandywine Valley and the Brandywine River. Wyeth painted in the studio from 1940 to 2008, less than a year away from the time of his death in January of 2009.

In addition to major structural work, the project included attention to details such as preserving the aged appearance of the studio ceilings and walls, and restoring the original wide floor boards. In 2011 the Conservancy began a program of assessment and design for both the preservation of the studio and the collection of personal objects owned by the Wyeths. Collections included an extensive collection of cast lead soldiers, an art library, movies, furniture, props for paintings and both painting supplies and tools.

The Conservancy pursued National Historic Landmark designation for the property, a status already granted to the adjacent N.C. Wyeth House and Studio and the nearby Kuerner Farm. The Andrew Wyeth Studio is open for tours daily through Nov. 23, 2014. Visitors may also tour the N.C. Wyeth House and Studio and the nearby Kuerner Farm.

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