It is one of the most endearing stories I know: a tale of a boy who had a crush that turned into an over 50-year marriage. The boy, Jamie Wyeth (American, b. 1946), became a famous artist and his wife, Phyllis Mills Wyeth (1940–2019), his muse. It is a story of triumph, of spirit, and of tenacity. It is a Wyeth story, it is a Mills story, and, at the heart of it, it is a celebration of life. Jamie Wyeth expressed this enchanted tale in his paintings. I cannot think of anything more intimate or pure, and to preserve this sentiment, I will refer to them as “Jamie” and “Phyllis” in this blog entry.
In 2014, Jamie discussed his artistic process in the short film, Inferno: “I just look at myself as a recorder. I just want to record things that interest me in my life…it’s as if I’m doing a diary.” What must it have been like for Phyllis to so deeply inspire someone that he painted her over and over again? Moreover, what was it like for that painter to be “the” Jamie Wyeth?
When Phyllis passed away in January 2019, the Brandywine River Museum of Art organized a tribute exhibition within two months. Beautifully curated, the paintings and sketches in Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration, spanning over 50 years, lay bare the essence of Phyllis’s uncontainable spirit and the magnitude of Jamie’s artistic talent. The combination is a moving visual journey of a woman who, despite being dealt what could have been a cruel deck of cards, lived life to the utmost.
Phyllis was a force of nature. A child of Alice DuPont Mills and James P. Mills, who established the Thoroughbred breeding and training operation Hickory Tree Farm and Stable in Middleburg circa 1950, she too was an avid sportswoman from her earliest days and loved to ride and jump horses. She went to the Hill School in Middleburg and was friends with Jacqueline B. Mars, daughter of Forrest E. Mars, Sr. Her father was the driving force of Mars Incorporated, introducing M&M’s in 1941, among other now-household names. The girls along with Phyllis’s older sister Mimi were the first children to hunt with Orange County Hounds in The Plains. It was an idyllic life in the Virginia Piedmont.
Phyllis went on to graduate from the Ethel Walker School, major in Political Science at Finch College, and work for John F. Kennedy when he was Senator and later President. Just shy of her 22nd birthday in 1962, Phyllis was in a life-changing car accident. A head-on collision left her with a broken neck and a year of rehabilitation at a New York City hospital. She walked with crutches (and was confined to a wheelchair later in life).
Following her accident, when she was able, she attended the Maryland Hunt Cup. There, Jamie, five-and-a-half years her junior, saw her and was again captivated after having danced with her at a party. They had met by the time he was 12 years old. The couple married in 1968 and moved to Point Lookout Farm, a 240-acre farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. There they surrounded themselves with a menagerie of animals, among them her prized Connemara ponies and Paint horses. After her accident, she turned her love of horses to carriage driving, both for pleasure and competitively. She started Chadds Ford Stable, a breeding operation that produced Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags in 2012. Dogs were the Wyeths’ constant companions, and they split their time between Pennsylvania and their property in Tenants Harbor, Maine.
All the while, Jamie painted and captured the narrative of Phyllis’s sporting life and her multifaceted character for decades. The leaps and bounds he took away from his early subdued palette are seen in full force in these paintings. Perhaps he felt freer to experiment when he tried to encapsulate her vibrant spirit and fortitude, using electric colors and throwing paint. In pairings such as …And Then Into the Deep Gorge, completed in 1975, and Out of the Deep Gorge, the same subject revisited in 2002, Phyllis transforms from an enigmatic siren descending into the shadowy forest to a triumphant foil illuminated by a swirl of neon yellow. Jamie’s paintings of Phyllis are a mesmerizing and transfixing journey.
At the opening event at NSLM, Jacqueline Mars said that her childhood friend Phyllis has come home. It is a poignant return, and the sentiment rings true in the NSLM galleries as Phyllis Mills Wyeth’s life unfolds through the eyes of her husband from one room to the next, an intimate experience in the original wing of the museum that was once a Federal-style house. At the event, Jamie shared an exchange he once had with Andrew Wyeth. He asked his famed father why he painted, and his answer was, “Well, Jamie, I paint for myself.” Jamie said he also thought of himself in the same way until recently, noting, “Now I know I was painting for Phyllis.” It is an honor to be the final venue for Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration and to share it with our community.
“Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration” is on view through August 30, 2020. It was organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art and was generously underwritten at NSLM by Jacqueline B. Mars.
Claudia Pfeiffer is the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org