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A Summer Idyll:  Landscapes from the Brandywine Valley


Brandywine River Museum presents through September 2, 2002 a special exhibition of over 80 works of art that celebrate the region's countryside. A Summer Idyll: Landscapes of the Brandywine Valley honors generations of artists who have drawn inspiration from the area and simultaneously affirms the region's importance in the development of American art.

Since the early 19th century, the Brandywine Valley has been famous for its rich farmland; numerous mills; distinctive architecture built by Quaker, Scots-Irish, and Swedish settlers; and its role in historic events. The focus of much of this activity has been the Brandywine River itself, stretching for 60 miles from the Welsh Mountains of northern Chester County, Pennsylvania, to Wilmington, Delaware, where it joins with the Christina River before emptying into the Delaware River. Along its course, this picturesque stream rushes over rocky beds, flows quietly through wooded glens, and glides lazily through broad meadows. (left: N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) cover illustration, Popular Magazine (Two Boys in a Punt), 1915, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches, Private Collection)

Both the river and surrounding countryside have been celebrated in literature since the mid-19th century. Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872) romanticized the Brandywine as a "winding silver line through Chester's storied vales and hills." Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) wrote melodramatic works that retold local folktales. And John Russell Hayes (1866-1945) offered poetic rambles through the countryside in Brandywine Days. As word of the region's fine scenery and historical significance spread, it soon became a place for recreation. Chester County was easily reached by rail and was a popular destination for city dwellers eager to refresh themselves in the restful countryside. The valley and its river long ago became a summer haven for canoeing, fishing, swimming, camping and walking.

Artists, too, have been attracted to the region and through two centuries found aesthetic inspiration in its natural beauty and historic sites. Works in the exhibition span the period from the early 19th century to recent times. Among early works is the nation's first lithograph, House and Trees at Waterside (1819) by Bass Otis, which has long been believed to be a Chester County scene. Otis was a prominent portrait painter but also did a number of landscapes of the countryside surrounding Philadelphia. His painting, W. Lownes Taylor Farm (ca. 1832), describes the peace and prosperity of a homestead near West Chester on a sunny summer afternoon. In contrast, Thomas Doughty's Gilpin's Mill on the Brandywine (ca. 1830) renders a local site but, in the tradition of contemporary Hudson River School painters, the artist provided an idealistic impression rather an accurate document of a place. George Cope, Jefferson David Chalfant, Edward Moran, Robert Shaw, Edmund Darch Lewis, Thomas Eakins, and William Trost Richards are among others whose works extol 19th-century ideals of nature and realism.

In 1898, when illustrator Howard Pyle brought his students to Chadds Ford for the first of five summers of study, he unknowingly established a tradition to become the center for the so-called "Brandywine School." The term since has been applied to Pyle's students and their followers, whether or not they lived in the region, and it denotes a particular style based in Pyle's teaching. Pyle's students, including Frank Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs and N.C. Wyeth, solidified the school's distinctive artistic character.

The work of N.C. Wyeth (who was among those long continuing to live and work in the area) has had enormous influence on other artists of the region and far beyond. Known for his professional work as an illustrator, Wyeth inwardly strove to be strictly a painter and spent as much time possible studying the character and mood of the Chadds Ford landscape. He reflected that special mood in many paintings. He was active in local art circles, exhibited his paintings both nearby and in major American cities, and assisted young artists who sought his advice.

N.C. Wyeth fostered artistic talent in his children by inspiring them with his love of the land and of art. By the late 1920s, he and his family began to spend summers in Maine, but there were several years when they stayed for part of the summer in Chadds Ford, traversing hillsides and valleys seeking subjects to paint. The works of Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Andrew's son Jamie show that particularly intimate relationship to the land. Their landscapes are each unique expressions of memories and personal experiences. Jamie Wyeth's works frequently focus on carefully observed natural phenomenon, such as tree fungus, roots or swirling pools of water. The animated qualities of his subjects often suggest that the artist imagines their transformation into other forms of life. N.C. Wyeth was also a large influence on his sons-in-law Peter Hurd and John McCoy whose works depicting early to late summer are included in the exhibition.

Photographs, postcards and memorabilia from the region are included in the exhibition to further demonstrate the historic popularity of the Brandywine Valley as a place of ideal beauty and recreation. The exhibition's paintings depict the landscape in many artistic styles. From the emphasis on color and pattern in Horace Pippin's wonderful view of Birmingham Meeting House to the broad brush work and scumbled textures of Franz de Merlier's landscapes, the exhibition provides a fascinating range of interpretations of summer along the Brandywine. These works suggest both the idyllic warm days and idleness of the season.


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