CHADDS FORD, Pa. – The view from inside the barn depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s “Spring Fed” remains the same: A metal bucket hangs over a stone trough brimming with cold water, the barnyard and Kuerner Hill visible through the lone window.
Wyeth grew up less than a mile from this farm owned by Karl and Anna Kuerner, German immigrants in Delaware County’s rural Brandywine Valley. He has documented Kuerner Farm’s people, animals and fields in more than 1,000 works of art.
Guides from the nearby Brandywine River Museum now walk visitors through this major source of Wyeth’s artistic inspiration.
The artist, 86, still lives in the Chadds Ford area, near the farm he began painting as a teenager – and continues to paint to this day.
The Kuerner family donated the farmhouse, barn and 33 acres of fields to the Brandywine Conservancy, the museum’s parent organization. Tours began in April and continue through Nov. 21.
Visitors take a bus from the museum two miles away, crossing paved-over train tracks before reaching the white farmhouse and red barn.
Wyeth’s father, the illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and a young nephew died when a train struck their stalled car on these tracks in 1945.
Having never painted a portrait of his father while he was alive, Wyeth began painting him as a symbol – the steep slope of Kuerner Hill, rising against the horizon in many later landscapes.
“The massiveness of the hill represents to Andy the massiveness of his father and a psychological presence, too, dominating large portions of daily life and the environment,” said Jim Duff, museum director. Duff curated an exhibit of artwork and artifacts, “The Kuerner Farm,” on display in the museum through November.
More than 30 years after the accident, Wyeth depicted a dying Karl Kuerner lying in a snow patch on the same hillside.
“Maybe he looked at my grandfather as a surrogate father” after the train accident, said Karl J. Kuerner, the grandson of the man depicted in the 1978 tempera “Spring.”
His father, Karl Kuerner Jr., 77, remembers stumbling upon Wyeth absorbed in sketching.
One cold night, Kuerner Jr. said, “My father said to him, ‘If you’re going to be out there you better take better care of yourself or you’ll freeze.’ We brought him burlap bags to keep warm.”
The Kuerners gave Wyeth a key to the farmhouse, where he painted portraits.
In the 1970s, Wyeth began painting Helga Testorf, a German woman who served as a nurse to Karl Kuerner, in the farmhouse. The series of nudes and other portraits, kept secret for 15 years, created an art world sensation when finally revealed.
Reproductions of Wyeth’s paintings are displayed in the farmhouse.
The Brandywine Conservancy restored the property to look the way Wyeth saw it in the 1960s and ’70s. A neglected pond will be filled with water by late summer, Duff said.
Portions of the kitchen wallpaper have been restored to the pattern seen in Wyeth’s “Ground Hog Day,” depicting the Kuerners’ yellow kitchen.
The tours also show some things Wyeth didn’t include in his paintings.
Duff said Wyeth’s art is often more representational than realist. “I don’t think he’s ever put the same number of windows in the farmhouse twice. He’s put in the number of windows that suit him, that make the design work,” he said.
Currently, waist-high green hay contrasts with the muted brown monochromes in the museum. Wyeth only painted at the farm in colder months; he spends his summers in Maine.
The Kuerners, standing at the top of Kuerner Hill on a recent morning, said they appreciate Wyeth’s preservation of their family farm.
“As a kid it was always ‘the Kuerners’ farm,’ but when Andy started painting it, it became part of the art world,” Kuerner Jr. said.
Wyeth declined to be interviewed.
The younger Kuerner, whose own paintings are also featured in the museum exhibit, remembers walking the farm with Wyeth.
Wyeth told him: “We haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg yet. There is so much here to paint.”