A Visit to the Brandywine Valley

The Brandywine River, humble in appearance but crucial to a Revolutionary War battle, and, much later, the locus of a group of America's greatest painters.

By odd coincidence, a post I wrote sometime ago about artist Howard Pyle has been getting an unusual amount of traffic lately. I don’t know why. The coincidence lies in the fact that I recently visited the Brandywine River Valley in Pennsylvania where Pyle resided and established his art school.

The visit took place on my way back from the big reenactment in Virginia last week. I decided it would be prudent to break up the trip by staying somewhere in Pennsylvania, seeing some sights on Monday and then heading home. Ah, I remember my early days of reenacting when I and a pard would drive all night (in uniform) to a national reenactment, get as filthy as possible at said reenactment, and then drive through the night in grimy uniforms to get home, exhausted and hungry. It was as uncomfortable, smelly and insane as it sounds. That was about 12 years ago, when we were young and stupid.

Now, being older and only slightly less stupid (I still reenact the Civil War, after all), I can no longer match that pace and I’d much rather re-enter the 21st century by cleaning up as soon as possible and getting a good night’s sleep. The stopover I chose was Chadd’s Ford, both for its proximity to Valley Forge and the Brandywine River Museum. It was a great choice.

After cleaning up and getting a fine night’s sleep at a nice hotel, I and my traveling companion went as early as possible to the Brandywine River Museum.  It features the artwork of some of my very favorite artists: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth, among others. It is an outstanding place and well worth a visit should you be in the vicinity. We spent so much time at the museum that we did not have time for Valley Forge. Next trip, I suppose.

Those curious about Howard Pyle can read up on him at an excellent blog devoted to his life and work written by Ian Schoenher. In short, Howard Pyle (1853-1911) painted illustrations primarily for adventure novels and pirate stories. He also did some absolutely outstanding military history paintings…among my favorites are The Battle of Yorktown, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Battle of Nashville (shown below…this one is mind-blowing if you really study it) and The Nation Makers. The latter was actually there at the Brandywine Museum and I could have spent an hour looking at it.

"Battle of Nashville" by Howard Pyle, 1906. I am given to understand that this is presented in art books as a perfect example of creating motion in art. I think it is phenomenal the way the advance looks like cresting ocean waves.

Pyle established what became known as the Brandywine School and trained many fine artists. Perhaps foremost among them was N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945). Wyeth, a Massachusetts native who settled in Chadds Ford in 1908, would become known as the greatest American illustrator, rendering some 3,000 paintings and illustrating 112 books. His mother had known Henry David Thoreau and Wyeth had a deep appreciation for Thoreau’s work. He also admired a contemporary, Robert Frost. Therefore, the inspiration from which Wyeth drew happens to match some of my own, which further cements my admiration for him. His magnum opus is a collection of 17 illustrations for the book Treasure Island done in 1911.

"Jim Hawkins Leaves Home" by N.C. Wyeth, 1911.

My favorite of these is probably “Jim Hawkins Leaves Home,” shown at right. Despite the beauty of these works, Wyeth could not escape the label, “illustrator” and never really joined the ranks of “painters” which bothered him very much.

Wyeth and his wife, Carolyn, had a brood of talented artists, each quite skilled in their own ways. But Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), the youngest child, was the most talented of them all. He was raised in Chadds Ford in the Brandywine River Valley. He was trained in painting by his father, N.C. Wyeth, at a young age. Tragically, his father was killed when his car stalled at a train crossing and it was struck by a train in 1945. Andrew Wyeth’s painting has a rather darker tone than his father’s and it has been said that this style evolved shortly after his father’s death.

Andrew Wyeth’s most famous painting is “Christina’s World.” Definitely a wonderful work of art, and certainly up there on the list of prints I would want to frame and put on my wall, but not my favorite. At the Brandywine Museum I saw so many stunning paintings, it is difficult to choose a favorite Andrew Wyeth. However, I think there was one that had most profound effect on me. A strange self-portrait of the artist from the knees down called “Trodden Weed” (below) Two things are intriguing about this painting. First, the almost unnoticeable black-stemmed weed, stomped underfoot, is meant to represent death…and the fact that the heavy-booted subject is crushed said weed meant to represent the sometimes haphazard manner in which we tromp through life, often destroying things without even noticing. That’s just dark, and pure Andrew Wyeth. I like it.

"Trodden Weed" by Andrew Wyeth, 1951.

But even more intriguing, the boots belonged to Howard Pyle (they were antiquated French chevalier boots, one of the many items Pyle collected for his pirate paintings). They were given to N.C. Wyeth, inherited by Andrew Wyeth and worn for this painting. So, in this work of art are embodied three artists whom I greatly admire, and three generations of the Brandywine School, sort of wrapped up into one painting. Howard Pyle’s boots, his influence, his training of N.C. Wyeth. In turn N.C. Wyeth’s training of Andrew. And finally Andrew’s work, unique, but still showing traces of influence that go back to Howard Pyle nearly a century earlier. I very much enjoyed seeing this, and almost would have missed it had not my friend pointed it out to me.

Another interesting part of the trip was our brief walk around the Brandywine Battlefield National Park, a relatively small piece of land that preserves two houses that were at the center of an important Revolutionary War battle. One of them was Washington’s headquarters.  But that, I think, is a different story.

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “A Visit to the Brandywine Valley

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