Story by Kaitlin Hill | Images Courtesy of The National Sporting Library & Museum   

Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration, on display at The National Sporting Library & Museum, is a captivating collection of renowned American realist Jamie Wyeth’s most intimate work. Through 31 artistic renderings, Wyeth tells the story of his wife’s remarkable life, her many talents, and their decades-long marriage. 

The exhibit, which was organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., made stops in Rockland, Maine, and Greenville, S.C., before coming to Middleburg, where Mills Wyeth grew up. The National Sporting Library & Museum George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Curator, Claudia Pfeiffer, explains, “There is a certain sense of bringing her back to a community that remembers her with fondness.” 

Jamie Wyeth (American, b. 1946) Connemara (1987), oil on canvas, 37×73 inches on loan from The Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection.

Mills Wyeth was raised at Burnt Mills Farm, just outside Middleburg’s main street. There she became an avid equestrian, but at just 21, an automobile accident left her with altered mobility. Pfeiffer tells, “People here know her story, and how she broke her neck.” She continues, “It was a challenge in her life that she overcame, in full force…Instead of riding horses she decided to drive and became a champion carriage driver.” 

The exhibit includes scenes from her decorated carriage-driving career. Wyeth’s And Then Into the Deep Gorge (1975) and Connemara Four (1991) capture his wife’s determination, and seemingly, her delight to be doing what she loves with just the hint of a smile upon her painted face.

Wyeth’s paintings and drawings not only tell the story of his wife as an impressive equestrian, they also capture her fun-loving spirit in even the simplest of moments. His pieces Catching Pollen (2012) and Stealing Holly from the Irénées (2016) are gorgeous tributes to Mills Wyeth’s love of nature. 

Jamie Wyeth (American, b. 1946) And Then Into the Deep Gorge (1975), oil on canvas, 36 x 46 inches on loan from The Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection.

Though maybe the most obvious, and endearing, story told by Wyeth’s paintings is that of his love for his wife, a woman he considered his muse throughout 50 years of marriage. Pfeiffer remarks, “It’s such an intimate exploration of a man, as an artist, who is in love with this person who is his muse.” She adds, “He put all of his love and his passion into painting this woman for over 50 years, as she did things that she loved.” 

Wyeth’s love for his wife, who passed in January 2019, resulted in some truly magnificent paintings that offer visitors to the gallery a unique perspective of Wyeth as an artist and a man. Pfeiffer says, “The amazing thing about this body of work is he is painting his wife. It’s not commissioned. It’s not for somebody else. He could take a turn and he’s not being restricted in any way.” She expands, “It’s a celebration of this amazing sporting figure, but it is just as much a celebration of his freedom to move into his own voice of artistic expression.” 

The gallery’s layout is a unique experience for guests too. Often exhibits are organized chronologically, but Pfeiffer saw this collection as an opportunity for storytelling versus timeline plotting. “The natural tendency we have as curators is to have things in chronological order, but I was so inspired by the idea of a tribute.” Pfeiffer expands, “So when I saw the catalogue and envisioned it in our museum, I knew it really needed to be in the Vine Hill galleries, the rooms of the Federal house wing of the museum. This way, you can experience the storytelling aspect of it, that unfolds one room after the other.” 

Jamie Wyeth (American, b. 1946) Iggy Visits Union Rags—Fairhill 2011 (2011), mixed media on toned paper, 4 ¼ x 8 ¾ inches on loan from The Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection. 

She concludes, “It’s laid out to experience the tribute in a more contemplative way, instead of having it be in a room where you walk around and you are done.”  

If the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is true, then this collection of paintings spanning 50 years is arguably worth a few thousand more. The thoughtfully curated love story pays tribute to one of America’s finest artists and one of Middleburg’s most loved figures. Pfeiffer notes, “It’s a ton of beautiful examples of Jamie Wyeth’s very personal experiences. And there is a lot of emotion there…You will experience the trajectory of his style in amazing ways in these paintings and celebrate the amazing life of his wife. That’s the takeaway of this exhibit.”

Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration will remain on display at the National Sporting Library and Museum until August 30, 2020 and is an exhibit that certainly should not be missed. ML

Tour the virtually National Sporting Library & Museum from your home with the Free Online Virtual Tour Creator: http://www.nationalsporting.org/nslm/exhibition_details/1010

This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.

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