If you go to see “The Way Back: the Paintings of George A. Weymouth, a Brandywine Valley Visionary,” the work you will probably remember is August.
This canvas, four feet square, shows a small wildflower- and grass-covered hillock on the artist’s property near Chadds Ford. It was completed in 1974, though Weymouth had worked on it for four years before that.
Some of the grasses are brown after the hot summer; others remain deep green. The picture is dominated by what I began to call a cloud of Queen Anne’s lace until I realized that every one of these ethereal flowers is depicted with the detail of a botanical illustration and the individuality of a portrait. The same goes for the tangle of grasses.
This obsessiveness transforms what might be a merely decorative picture into something like a moral statement: Each weed matters, and the realist artist’s obligation is to show what is.
Moreover, as the artist says in a video that precedes the show at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, he was also trying to evoke some things that couldn’t be shown directly: the August heat and the din of late-summer insects. Weymouth’s high-definition painting, consisting largely of short brushstrokes and translucent color, helps make the work an immersive experience.
The exhibition, whose works were selected by Joseph Rishel, curator emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a longtime friend, shows that Weymouth (1936-2016) painted all his life. He did the first work in the show when he was 12 and the last at 76.
Yet “Frolic” Weymouth, as everyone called him, is not primarily known as an artist. (He got the name, the story goes, when his older brother’s dog, named Frolic, died, and he was offered to the brother as a substitute.)
He was a colorful and enthusiastic grandee, the friendly face of feudalism, at the reins of one of his impeccably restored coaches. He was a sixth-generation du Pont on his mother’s side, an equestrian and polo player from childhood who rubbed shoulders with other horse enthusiasts, such as England’s Prince Philip.
The man who branded the Brandywine
Weymouth was a founder and longtime chairman of the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, an unusual institutional hybrid that seems to have been shaped by Weymouth’s two abiding passions, art and land conservation.
The organization has used the art of the Wyeth family and others to brand the Brandywine Valley as a cultural and natural treasure and make it a tourism destination. The conservancy holds title or easements to nearly 60,000 acres in Pennsylvania and Delaware and remains a strong force in determining how land in the region should be developed. Thus, you could say he was a great marketer and social entrepreneur as well.
His mother’s name was Dulcinea, the imagined ideal woman in Don Quixote, and Weymouth did seem determined to be a character from another, better time. But his efforts were not quixotic.
The Brandywine Valley was one of America’s first industrial landscapes, and the money that has protected it came from industrial wealth. Yet largely because of Weymouth’s efforts, we see the area now as a pastoral place, an island of rural repose in a vast exurban landscape of housing developments and big-box stores.
“Frolic” Weymouth was an ebullient and effective reactionary.
The exhibition is divided into two sections. The first consists of portraits, a combination of neighbors, people who worked for him, family and friends, and several produced on commission for such figures as former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton and Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman.
He never worked from photographs and insisted his subjects appear for several long sittings for each portrait. Yet one rarely feels any intimacy in the portraits. The subjects feel elusive, present on the canvas, but lost in their own thoughts.
Sometimes, Weymouth even creates a narrative, as in Eleven O’Clock News (1966), in which a man pauses while chopping wood to listen to the news on a transistor radio.
In two paintings showing his wife Anna, Andrew Wyeth’s niece, we do not even see her eyes. There is no emotional connection at all. (Their marriage ended in divorce.) Jack Campbell’s Coat (1961), which shows only a well-worn jacket hanging from a hook, is a more eloquent and sensual portrait than these.
Weymouth’s best known sort-of-portrait is The Way Back (1963), from which the exhibition takes its name. It shows the artist’s own hands at the reins of a carriage as he approaches the entrance to Big Bend, the 18th-century house he restored.
He more often drove four-horse rigs, but here he is drawn by a single horse, down the drive to the symmetrical house with a tree on either side. It is an expression of control and formal order that seems to embody Weymouth’s fundamental values.
This painting provides a context for the stronger half of the show, which includes August and many other pictures that depict the grounds of Big Bend and other places in the Brandywine Valley at various times of year, particularly late summer and late winter.
Though a painting like August might seem at first to celebrate unbridled nature, it is, in fact, a depiction of managed land. Weymouth shows us as much in First Cutting (2004). It captures the same spot as August, but cut and punctuated with bales of the hay that it produced.
Weymouth’s passion was not for nature but for land, his land, the place where he lived. His art — technically adept and self-consciously conservative — expresses the same beliefs that animated his work in creating and sustaining the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum.
But if he was a visionary, as the title of this exhibition asserts, it was not in his paintings. Rather, his vision is embodied in the hybrid institution he helped create to ensure that the Brandywine Valley would remain out of step with its times.
The Way Back: the Paintings of George A. Weymouth, a Brandywine River Visionary
- Through June 3 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman's Mill Road, Chadds Ford. Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Tickets: $18 adults, $15 seniors (65+), $6 students with ID and children 6-18 (children under 6 free). Information: 610-388-2700 or brandywine.org/museum.