The Helga Mystery
By Virginia Butterfield
Her face has the luminous glow of good health. Her body—whether wrapped against the cold in a loden coat or lying nude by a window with the curtains blowing—is the body of a sturdy peasant. A German immigrant, she worked on a farm near Andrew Wyeth’s Pennsylvania home, cooked and cleaned for his sister Carolyn and, for 15 years, modeled for the famous painter. And all that time Wyeth hid the work away, showing it to no one. Not even his wife of more than 46 years (who is also his business manager) knew of its existence.
And then one day in the spring of 1985, Wyeth unexpectedly showed his cache of Helga portraits and sketches to a visiting interviewer, Jeffrey Schaire of Arts & Antiques magazine. Shortly thereafter, Wyeth flew to his other home in Rockland, Maine, where his wife, Betsy, met him. Shaire describes what ensued. As they were driving home from the airport, they came to a dip in the road, and Wyeth told Betsy that for 15 years he’d been working on a series she’d never seen. “All I really remember is that dip in the road,” Betsy said.
A few weeks later Wyeth took his paintings from their hiding place and gave three to Betsy; the rest they decided to sell. Leonard Andrews, a collector, was tipped off about the treasure and arrived at the Wyeths’ farm in Chadds Ford on a beautiful Pennsylvania morning. Welcomed by the Wyeths, Andrews then climbed to a second-floor room of the old gristmill in the back of the property and there viewed the collection.
What did he see? Paintings and sketches hanging on every wall, piled on tables, propped against posts—240 works in all. Temperas, drybrushes, watercolors, pencil sketches—and all of the same woman. According to Schaire, Andrews was viewing “the mystery of a great painter’s most intimate obsession, one of the best-kept secrets in the history of American art.”
The Wyeths politely left the collector alone to make his own assessment. Said Andrews: “I spent two hours looking at the collection and trying to absorb what I was seeing. My thoughts raced from picture to picture, trying to pick out highlights, only to find myself faced with such an abundance of them that I was almost mute. I finally went down the stairs and across the drive to the Wyeths’ home. Andy came out, and I shook his hand and said, ‘Mr. Wyeth, congratulations, you have created a national treasure, and I want to protect it and show it to the American people. I want the collection.’”
Two weeks later, Andrews’ offer on the entire collection was accepted. Best guess —more than $10 million. Back at the farmhouse, Betsy, Andy and the Texas-born Andrews drank champagne to celebrate.
The works are vibrant with detail. Letting Her Hair Down focuses on wayward strands of shiny flaxen hair straggling against bare shoulders—such inspired realism, you can almost feel how it tickles her skin. A series of watercolors (In the Orchard) puts Helga in a caped coat and boots, sometimes in a snow-sprinkled winter scene, sometimes in the lush green of a spring meadow. In the kneeling nudes (On Her Knees), Wyeth floods the body with light and lovingly traces each strand of the braided hair. The serene, sleeping nudes (Overflow) are almost a definition of quiet. In Refuge, the final watercolor of the suite, Helga leans against the darkened bark of a tree, once again in her loden-green coat, this time with collar upturned and gazing downward. It’s a series that intrigues.
But why 15 years of secrecy? The story had the makings of a juicy scandal, and the press, as well as the art world, took it up immediately. Betsy did little to still the rumors (perhaps deliberately—she is reputedly a shrewd manager). In fact, she added a fillip of suspense when she described to a reporter that the portraits were about love. Some suggest that since publicity inflates the market value of art, Betsy’s hint of an affair was cleverly calculated to do just that.
USA Today featured the story on page one: “Everybody’s Talking about Secret Model.” Both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on the Helga paintings with such titillating headlines as “Andrew Wyeth’s Stunning Secret” and “Andrew Wyeth’s Secret Obsession.”
Wyeth mildly, and with wry Yankee humor, responded that all painting is about love. To the Newsweek reporter he said, “I mean, you’re painting rocks, or you’re painting an animal, or a tree, or a hill, but you should love it.”
Others defended the artist in varying ways. His sister, Carolyn, told Newsweek, “He’s got more on his mind than sex. Andy’s an artist. He paints subjects; he does not go to bed with them.”
A former model, Siri Erickson, told Time magazine: “He would get totally involved in his work. It was as if you were a tree. He’s a normal, everyday person. He does paint good, but he’s just Andy.”
One good friend remarked that both Andy and Betsy have “a marvelous way of teasing.”
It’s a well-known fact that Wyeth demands privacy when he is painting. Few people, other than his models, have ever seen him paint. “I’m a secretive bastard,” he is reported to have said. “I would never let anybody watch me painting ... it would be like somebody watching you have sex.”
But why did he never show the paintings to anybody, even his colleagues, instead stockpiling them in an attic over such a long period of time? Wyeth has explained that by showing a work in progress, he fears a stoppage of momentum and of emotion. “I don’t want to stop that train of thought,” he said in Arts & Antiques. “If they like it, you’re stopped, and if they dislike it, you’re stopped—either way.”
He told Newsweek, “The more eyes you let see what you’re doing while you’re working, it saps from it, and it saps from my imagination, too.” When Wyeth felt ready to show the Helga paintings, he knew he was finished working on them. The series was complete.
But what about Helga? Who was she? Reporters besieged the small town where the Wyeths reside, looking for clues. But Helga’s identity remained closely guarded. It is said that two Dobermans were set in her driveway to discourage intruders. She was married; that much was known. She had at least two children (some said four). She had shown great kindness to another neighbor, Karl Kuerner (another subject of Wyeth’s paintings), during the time of his final illness. She was not a person who would enjoy media attention. Helga Testorf was 38 when Wyeth started painting her; she was 53 when he closed the series.
Stephen Brezzo, executive director of the San Diego Museum of Art, followed the story with avid interest. He had always loved the Helga paintings. The collection was sold to a Far East consortium that has been very circumspect about its identity. “I was waiting for an opportunity, a period when the work might be well received by the public and when the lender would be willing,” says Brezzo.
The Portland (Oregon) Museum was also interested, as was a museum in New Orleans. “We went to Florida to see the portion on view there,” says Brezzo, “and thought it would be a great project for a tour.” Since the Republican National Convention was scheduled for San Diego in August, the three museums agreed to open the exhibition in this city. The closest the collection had ever come to San Diego was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1988, the year after its debut at the National Gallery in Washington in 1987.
The new ownership consortium is out of the country, but the collection itself is housed in the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Because of Brezzo’s efforts, more than 100 paintings and sketches from the 240-piece collection are on view at the San Diego Museum of Art from June 29 to September 2.
“It needs to be seen a number of times,” says Brezzo. “It’s like making an acquaintance—a discovery exhibition, a deep experience. The catalogue presents the work chronologically, beginning with Helga letting her hair down. At that point there is a certain distance, emotional and aesthetic, between artist and model. Then comes a kind of building, a Germanic strength, an intensity. In the autumn period, a cooling has occurred. Whatever the relationship was—man/woman, artist/model—there is now detachment, resignation. In the final painting, Refuge, it’s over. He is moving on. The series ends there.”
Does Brezzo suspect a sexual relationship? “I don’t know, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities, the air of mystery. It charges the work.”
Was Betsy manipulating the critics? “It’s superbly marketed, in the best sense of the word,” concedes Brezzo. “Betsy is a genius.”
Helga is still in seclusion.