Photo courtesy Hagley Museum and Library
You needn’t be a collector or artist to be impressed by the historic homes and museums of the du Pont and Wyeth families in the Brandywine Valley. My husband, Tom, and I explored this compact, 12-mile valley in southeast Pennsylvania and north Delaware over two weekends. The first was devoted to the industrialists, the du Ponts, whose fortunes began with a gunpowder business here and led to the contemporary conglomerate DuPont. The second weekend, we immersed ourselves in the arts and sites showcasing works of the Wyeth family and the Brandywine School artists.
AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY: THE DU PONTS
We started where the du Pont story started, in Wilmington, Delaware, at the Hagley Museum and Library (hagley.org). It’s the site of the first du Pont home in America and also of Eleutherian Mills, which stands above the powder mill where E.I. du Pont built the backbone of his family’s gunpowder fortune in the early 1800s. We headed on foot for the small stone structures on the mill site (catching a gunpowder demonstration en route) and caught up with the informative guide and driver for Hagley’s free bus tour. Along the way, we learned about the three-story Georgian house that was home to five generations of du Ponts through the end of the 19th century, and also toured a barn, employees’ homes and a schoolhouse on the property.
Three miles away, on 222 acres, stands the five-story Louis XVI-style Nemours Estate and Versailles-like gardens (nemoursmansion.org), built by Alfred I. du Pont, great-grandson of E.I., as a tribute to the family’s French roots. Although he built the palatial, 77-room home for his second wife, Alicia, it was Jessie Ball from Virginia’s Northern Neck — who shared a common ancestor with George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball — with whom he found lasting happiness after Alicia died. Personal touches at Nemours reflect the Virginian’s presence.
Photo courtesy Winterthur
From here, we drove north on Delaware Route 52 to Winterthur (winterthur.org), a 175-room estate on 982 acres that Henry du Pont preserved as a museum, which opened as a full-time public facility in 1951. It’s ironic that Henry, a trained horticulturist, designed the extraordinary gardens to help preserve an agrarian lifestyle threatened by the very industrial revolution that brought his family enormous wealth. Winterthur has the largest collection of American decorative arts — larger than that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. While the estate is American in perspective, the collection is global: Henry collected more than 4,000 pieces of Chinese export porcelain (“CEP” to antiquers) and enjoyed “trading up” with dealers. A bonus at Winterthur is that we got the intimate sense of being among antiques the way they were set when Henry and his wife, Ruth, were still around.
THE WYETHS AND THE BRANDYWINE SCHOOL
We could have spent a day in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, ambling along the native plant gardens and river trail at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art (brandywinemuseum.org). We began with a lunch of local food at the Millstone Café, whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Brandywine River. The American art collection occupies three floors of this 19th-century brick gristmill with a dramatic glass-and-steel addition that showcases the works of N. C. Wyeth (don’t miss his illustrations for “Treasure Island”), his son Andrew and grandson James, who lived and painted in nearby homes.
The N.C. Wyeth House & Studio, the Andrew Wyeth Studio, and the Kuerner Farm are refreshingly unmanicured — especially the farm, where Andrew Wyeth found intriguing subjects for hundreds of tempera paintings, watercolors and drawings for more than 70 years. Check days and times for tours through Nov. 20, as the sites close from that date until April 1, 2017, when the facility will mark Andrew Wyeth’s centennial.
Paintings by other noted artists of the Brandywine School, founded by Wilmington native Howard Pyle, are here as well; but to see more work by this outstanding illustrator and mentor to N. C. Wyeth — as well as works by Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper — we headed to Wilmington and the Delaware Art Museum (delart.org), whose residential setting reminded us of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (thedcca.org), along Wilmington’s waterfront (where we enjoyed Harry’s Seafood Grill), is a non-collecting museum whose changing, state-of-the-art exhibitions reminded us of those of VCU.
EAT AND SLEEP
We sampled Fairfield Inn, Hotel DuPont (check the hotel’s theater schedule) and the riverfront Sheraton Suites Wilmington Downtown, all good retreats at the end of full days. The Fairfield’s price includes a tasty homemade breakfast; the Sheraton provides a refrigerator, coffee pot and microwave we used for heating excellent to-go food from Janssen’s Market in Greenville, Delaware, and Toscana to Go in Wilmington.