Cameos of Art Museums' Collections of Historic American Art

Brandywine River Museum

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

(610) 388-2700


In 1971, a unique place for American art opened on the banks of the historic Brandywine River in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Nearly 200,000 visitors discovered the Brandywine River Museum that first year. Today, more than four million visitors later, this 19th-century grist mill that was converted into a 20th-century art museum has established a national and international reputation for the quality of its collections and programs.


Howard Pyle

The Nationmakers, 1903


Three galleries in the old mill building boast original structural beams, white plaster walls, and pine floors. The fourth, the Andrew Wyeth gallery, features flexible wall partitions and a unique skylight system. All galleries open from a circular, brick-floored core - a symbolic silo for the old mill - with dramatic walls of glass, providing spectacular views of the Brandywine River and the rural landscape that inspired many of the artists represented in the museum's carefully focused collections.

Renowned works by N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth and many other artists from the Brandywine region hang near fascinating American still life paintings, important landscapes and an unparalleled collection of American illustration. Instead of trying to replicate encyclopedic collections of other museums, the Brandywine River Museum focuses its collections and exhibitions on American art of the 19th and 20th centuries and primarily art related to the heritage of its region.

Andrew Wyeth

Roasted Chestnuts, 1956

tempera on panel, 48 x 33 inches


The Brandywine River Museum is part of the Brandywine Conservancy, an environmental organization founded in 1967. In the mid-1960s, the historic Brandywine Valley in Chadds Ford, which had inspired artists throughout two centuries, faced massive industrial development. The impact in floodplain areas, in particular, would have been devastating to the water supply for numerous communities in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, including the city of Wilmington.

Appreciating the need for fast action, a group of local residents bought the endangered land at auction and founded the Brandywine Conservancy in 1967. Soon thereafter, the newly-formed organization purchased Hoffman's Mill, a former a gristmill on the banks of the Brandywine. In 1971, the Brandywine River Museum opened in the mill, which had been converted by architect James R. Grieves in harmony with the surrounding landscape and the region's history and art. Today, the Museum is regarded as one the region's most important cultural institutions.


N. C. Wyeth

Siege of the Round House

In keeping with the Conservancy's spirit of preservation, surrounding the museum are stands of wild flowers, trees and shrubs native and indigenous to the greater Brandywine region. The staff of the Brandywine Conservancy selects plants that provide a succession of bloom from early Spring through the first frost, and each plant is located in a setting akin to its natural habitat: woodland, wetland, floodplain, or meadow. The naturalized gardens provide pleasure to visitors, serve as a valuable education resource to horticulturists, and give inspiration to gardeners who wish to use native plants in their own locations.

The Brandywine River Museum collects and preserves American art with primary emphasis on the art history of the Brandywine Valley, on American landscape and still life painting, and on illustration. Since 1971,when it was founded, the museum's collections have grown to more than 2,500 works of art by hundreds of artists and thousands of other objects in the N.C. Wyeth
Studio and residence. A general description and some highlights of the collections follow.


During much of the 19th century, when landscape painting was a dominant form of visual expression, many artists ventured to the Brandywine Valley. By 1819, Bass Otis had published the nation's first lithograph - a Chester County scene entitled House and Trees at Waterside - now in the Brandywine River Museum's collection. Within decades,well-known members of the Hudson River School, including Thomas Doughty, Edward Moran and Jasper Cropsey, had documented the distinctive beauty of the region and are now represented by works in the museum's collection. Some, like William Trost Richards, chose to remain in the area and created powerful works here, such as the museum's Valley of the Brandywine, Chester County (September), painted by Richards about 1886. Landscape painting has continued in the region throughout the 20th century and is represented in the museum by painters as diverse as George Cope, Clifford Ashley, Peter Hurd and George Weymouth.

Still Life and Genre Painting

Still life painting also has strong roots in the Brandywine region, particularly trompe l'oeil or "fool the eye" painting that was popular in the late 19th century. The museum's collection includes examples by such painters as William Michael Harnett, the acknowledged leader in this type of painting, John F. Peto, George Cope, John Haberle and Alexander Pope. Many of these works were created for gentleman's clubs, pubs and other "masculine" interiors, hence the decidedly male subject matter: often hunting and fishing equipment, dead game, mugs and pipes. The museum's collection includes works by other important American still life painters, including Raphaelle Peale, John F. Francis, Levi Wells Prentice, J. Alden Weir and Walter Murch, among many.

The field of American genre painting in the 19th and 20th centuries is exemplified here with important interior scenes by Horace Pippin and Jefferson David Chalfant, both of whom lived and worked in this valley. Such works as Pippin's Saying Prayers, along with many others frequently exhibited, are prime examples of the vital artistic heritage of the Brandywine region.

American Illustration

A major portion of the region's heritage is American illustration. The first illustrator of note was the famous F.O.C. Darley, who left New York in 1859 to settle just north of Wilmington, Delaware. A few decades later, Howard Pyle, who is often called "the Father of American Illustration," also began to work in the Brandywine Valley. Pyle established an extraordinarily influential art school in Wilmington and Chadds Ford, where he trained dozens of artists, including major illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Jessie Willcox Smith and Frank Schoonover. Pyle and many of his students are represented in the Brandywine River Museum. American illustration is a major component of the museum's collection. Among the hundreds of illustrators represented are early 20th-century giants such as Edwin Austin Abbey, Winslow Homer, Howard Chandler Christy, Charles Dana Gibson, Rose O'Neill, Maxfield Parrish, and Rockwell Kent: late 20th-century cartoonists, such as Al Hirschfeld, Charles Addams, Edward
Gorey and Charles Schultz; and other illustrators such as Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Charles Santore and Nancy Eckholm Burkert. These are only some of the diverse talents revealed in an illustration collection that also includes Reginald Marsh, George Bellows and Frederic Remington.

Three Generations of Wyeth Art

N.C. Wyeth was profoundly affected by the Brandywine Valley when he arrived here to study with Howard Pyle in 1902. He married, settled in Chadds Ford, raised a family, and within a decade established himself among America's foremost illustrators with work featured in magazines and newspapers and in numerous very popular books. Several of his best-known illustrations, including ten works from Treasure Island along with works from Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, The Boy's King Arthur, The Last of the Mohicans and other Scribners' classics, are frequently on view at the museum. Wyeth is also represented here by fine still life and landscape paintings and portraits.

N.C. Wyeth's five children inherited much talent. Daughters Henriette Wyeth Hurd and Carolyn Wyeth gained recognition as painters and are well represented in the museum's collection. Andrew Wyeth, the youngest son of N.C., has become one of the most influential and well-known painters in the history of American art. Andrew Wyeth's images in egg tempera and watercolor are often thought to be exact representations of scenes or people. But, in fact, Wyeth restructures elements of visible reality, arranging people and objects as he pleases in order to create his private visions of places and people in Pennsylvania and Maine. Many works by Andrew Wyeth are exhibited at the museum; often on view are such well-known paintings as Evening at Kuerner's, Night Sleeper, Roasted Chestnuts, Siri, Trodden Weed and Snow Hill.

The third generation of the Wyeth family includes Andrew Wyeth's younger son, painter James Wyeth. By his early 20s, James Wyeth had earned national attention with a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy and other work. Later he produced striking portraits of Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol, studies for which are in the museum's collection. Since then, Wyeth has established a distinctive style, characterized by strong images and sharp contrasts in his landscapes and portraits. He is known for his monumental animal portraits, including Portrait of Pig and Raven in the museum's collection, which represents various stages in his changing style.

The Brandywine River Museum is open daily, except Christmas Day, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Selections from the museum's permanent collection are always exhibited. For information on works currently on view call (610) 388-2700.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/8/11

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