As soon as she crested the hill and the house came into view, Anna Reynolds ’26 recognized the roofline and distinctive dormers as Eight Bells, the house in the fishing community of Port Clyde, where the artist N.C. Wyeth set down Maine roots more than a century ago.
Patriarch of the American art family, N.C. Wyeth preserved an image of the long, boxy seaside home under a summer sky swept with clouds with his 1936 oil painting Bright and Fair. Reynolds and her classmates discussed the painting ahead of the outing to Eight Bells as part of a new Jan Plan course, Picturing Maine: The Wyeth Family and the Meaning of Place.
“It’s so interesting to see what it actually looks like and think about all the choices an artist has to make,” Reynolds said, standing on the rocks and considering just a few of those choices—things like what colors to use, where to place the house within the overall image, and what perspective to paint.
As part of their coursework, the students are analyzing how Maine’s cultural identity has been shaped by artists over time, how it has evolved, and who it includes and excludes. Specifically, they are exploring the common geographic influences but diverse and wildly divergent artistic perspectives of N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew, and grandson Jamie. Among them, the three generations of Wyeths comprise the most prominent 20th-century family of American painters. Their touchstone is Eight Bells, where N.C. Wyeth built his summer studio and raised his family, and the surrounding communities of Port Clyde, Tenants Harbor, and Cushing, where so many of the paintings originated.
The students were invited to Eight Bells and other locations important to the Wyeth family story by Victoria Browning Wyeth, Andrew’s only granddaughter. She is co-teaching the three-credit course with Margaret Creighton, professor of history, emeritus, from Bates College with a focus on regional identity.
“We have seen so many of their paintings that were done just right here,” Wyeth told the students as they gathered on the sloping snow-covered lawn facing the water. “It is so important for me to show you what it looks like in real life, the way N.C. saw it and the way my grandfather saw it. So go explore and enjoy.”
On a cold January day, the students did just that, exploring the environs of Eight Bells and other natural and architectural landscapes that form the backdrop of a century of Wyeth family paintings. Along the way, Victoria Wyeth corrected misperceptions passed down through history and offered her unique perspective on the paintings.
The students visited the “Inshore” home of Jamie Wyeth in Tenants Harbor, where they glimpsed his personal and private life and observed the art on his walls—he displays many of his own paintings, but his love of Rockwell Kent and Winslow Homer is evident—his antiques, taxidermal animals, ship models, and books.
‘It’s like going to a museum’
This stop was an unexpected bonus. The students were not originally scheduled to visit Jamie Wyeth’s home, but a scheduling snafu created the opportunity. When Victoria Wyeth called her uncle and asked if she could give the students a private tour, he said yes.
“Unreal,” said Willem Hunt ’25. “It’s like going to a museum.”
Actually, it was more than that. They spent time inside his vault, where Jamie Wyeth stores and secures his paintings. There, they had the opportunity to look closely, paying attention to Wyeth’s technique, the materials he uses, his brush strokes, and how he creates texture by building up the surface of the paint, a process known as impasto.
“It’s incredible that these kids, especially the ones who have no artistic background, get to know about my grandfather and uncle and make it come to life. And it’s not just for Wyeth, it’s for the rest of their lives. When they go to a museum, they will know how to look,” Victoria Wyeth said.
She urged the students to get close to the paintings and really look.
“Come in, come in, come in,” she said. “Close, close, close! You don’t get this opportunity in a museum, so come in, get close, and really look. Don’t be shy.”
“I have so much more appreciation for the art now,” Reynolds said. “I grew up seeing Andrew Wyeth’s artwork, but I didn’t know much about the painter himself or his story. When I told my family about what we were doing, they were so impressed that a class like this could be offered.”
David Ramgren ’24 echoed his classmate’s sentiments. “I’m a Maine native, but I didn’t know much about the Wyeth family. This is amazing.”
The students talked at length with the artist’s assistant, Mary Beth Dolan, who has worked with Jamie Wyeth for about 50 years. “Never a dull moment,” she said, describing her responsibility as taking care of “anything that comes my way”—including impromptu student tours.
In recent years, the College has established close ties with Jamie Wyeth and the Wyeth family legacy. He received an honorary degree in 2022, and he worked with the Colby Museum of Art to mount an exclusive exhibition of drawings by his late father in which he imagined his own death and funeral. Also in 2022, Colby partnered with the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and the Up East Foundation to establish Colby’s Island Campus on Allen and Benner islands, once owned by Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. The islands are a short boat ride from Port Clyde.
The class represents an extension of that relationship and the opportunity for Colby students to gain exclusive access to the Wyeth world. Among the guests who have addressed the students is David Michaelis, who wrote a birth-to-death biography of N.C. Wyeth, and he is researching a biography of Betsy Wyeth.
Behind the scenes at the Farnsworth
At the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, the students toured the current exhibition Every Leaf & Twig: Andrew Wyeth’s Botanical Imagination, on view through March 24. As they entered the exhibition space, they were greeted by Colby alumna Katherine Gates Karlik ’87, manager of community engagement and volunteers at the museum. An art history major at Colby, Karlik was impressed with the level of access the students received in the Picturing Maine Jan Plan course. “Jan Plan was wonderful when I was at Colby, but it was not this special. This is an incredible opportunity,” Karlik said.
Amy Morey, associate collection manager for the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Study Center at the Farnsworth, gave the students a behind-the-scenes look at the work of art historians and curators at the center, which houses more than 3,000 of Andrew Wyeth’s Maine works in flat files and in a climate-controlled vault. There, they were again able to get up close for detailed examinations of his watercolors and egg temperas and compare the real-world settings of the paintings to what they had seen in class on digital screens and the work itself.
From Rockland, the class shifted to the community of Cushing and the home of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, as well as other family members’ nearby homes. Students walked through the Wyeth house, which is under renovation, and toured his studio that includes his paint box and easels. They also spent time with and asked questions of one of Andrew Wyeth’s former female models, who posed for some of his best-known paintings beginning in the 1970s when she was 14.
“He was a great friend and a great pal,” said the model, who spoke openly with the students about her experiences but asked not to be photographed or identified by name. “He was very down to earth. He was a very famous artist, but he did not need to be famous. He didn’t care what people thought. It didn’t matter how much money you had or had little money you had, there was no distinction. He just liked people to be who they were, and it didn’t matter to him what you were wearing. Does that make you better because you have this wonderful outfit on? He didn’t think so.”
Once she got used to posing naked after a time or two, she said it felt very natural. “After that, I didn’t think anything of it. I could have been wearing a winter coat. It didn’t make any difference. It was something you did.”
She stopped posing for Wyeth when a boy she was dating objected. “He was probably jealous. Andy tried to bribe me with more money, but I rather liked the boy,” she said.
The model’s perspective will help the students with one of their assignments. As part of their coursework, students will select an image from a group of seven or eight portraits by Andrew Wyeth and write a two- to three-page paper from the perspective of the model. “The idea was to have them ponder what the model was thinking, what the model thought the artist was thinking, and to consider the challenges of having someone else define you visually,” Creighton said. “We thought it would be interesting to have the students, after reading their papers aloud, take on the persona of the model and answer questions through their eyes.”