The dynastic artist


Dear Artist,

Studies have shown that if you gather a bunch of nine-year-olds in a gymnasium and describe to them the physics of a back handspring, you’ll see in return a collection of head cocks and fidgets. Instead, researchers noticed that kids will jump to their feet when an actual gymnast performs this right in front of them. A back handspring — like a life in art — is perhaps easier to attempt when you’ve witnessed someone else doing it.


“The Duel” 1922
oil on canvas, 32 3/8 x 40 1/4 inches
by N. C. Wyeth (1882 – 1945)

Some time ago, I was rehearsing with my duet partner in New York — a serious artist building his own jazz creds and hours and musicality as long and wondrous as Broadway. He put down his bow and leaned in, elbow on piano: “You’re a second-generation artist, Sara. You have it smoother because you’ve seen someone do it and thrive.” I swallowed his words and ruminated in my own doubts and debts. Even amidst my epic failures and technical K2s, I was possibly, as he described, living in a kind of inherited belief system, surviving on the life raft of a dreamer’s paradigm — on a million back handsprings witnessed.


watercolor on paper by
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

In a recent study on dynastic professions by The New York Times, analysts have discovered, among other things, that daughters of artist fathers are eight times more likely to become artists themselves. Certain kinds of work, they say — trades, art and music, for example — form a cult-like family way of life, permeating values that hurl some kids into the eye of the art storm. I was working in Dad’s studio when the phone rang — it was writer Claire Miller from The New York Times. I told her about our house of activity and how the influence was simply, as my dad described, “infecting your kids with your joy.” “What was it like?” she asked. I answered, “He loved his work, he loved his life — and we wanted to be in love, too.”


“Jenny Wibley Sings” 2008
oil on board by
Jamie Wyeth (b.1946)



PS: “I now realize how intensely I’ve been living through my family.” (N.C. Wyeth)

Esoterica: American illustrator N.C. Wyeth settled in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in 1907, where he built a studio on his property and with his wife, Carolyn, raised three artists, one musician and a mechanical engineer. His youngest, Andrew Wyeth, would become one of the best-known American realists of the 20th Century, and he would also raise an artist son, Jamie Wyeth. Though his grandfather passed away a year before his birth, Jamie spent his childhood shuttling between the studio in his parent’s house at Chadd’s Ford and up the hill to his grandfather’s studio where his Aunt Carolyn painted for her whole life. “From my earliest memories, my aunt was squirting out oil paint. I could just eat it,” said Jamie. “I would go from her studio and walk down to my father’s house, and there he was, working in egg tempera.”


“Up from the Woods” 1974
by Carolyn Wyeth (1909-1994)

Quoctrung Bui and Claire Miller’s interactive article on dynastic occupations, The Jobs You’re Most Likely to Inherit From Your Mother and Father, which includes Sara’s input, is here.

“We lived in my father’s studio, so there were the brushes and the pencils and the paint. So it would – it was very natural for me to want to paint, I think, and it was never a question.” (Jamie Wyeth)


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I had whooping cough when I was very young, which left me with bronchial problems, and I would always pick up colds. I was very thin and nervous so my father and mother took me out of school and had me tutored at home.” (Andrew Wyeth)



  1. Interesting. I had four children, two showing some abilities in art. I encouraged them with materials and we talked a lot while I worked, not really about art. Nothing art wise really caught on for them. Later, I finally understood that they didn’t want to compete with me.

      • Well, I guess a better word might be intimidation. It has all worked out well, as they have all turned out to be well rounded citizens who contribute to our well being.

    • Both my children had a good background and multiple experiences with art, and TWO artist parents and two studios. Although they became artistically skillfill, one is a psychologist and the other a political scientist. Those apples fell far from the family tree!
      I believe they compared their work to our artist circle of friends. Tough on judgment of themselves but fortunately still interested in having art in their lives.

  2. Hello Sara,
    Thanks for sharing this, it is very interesting.
    I used to have a little painting room and would put on records and paint as a hobby. My young son would spend many hours with me in the painting room, since he was about 3. He did not become a painter, but he does have a great love for music and classic English rock bands such as ELO, The Kinks, The Who, Yes, and so on. It was not the painting that inspired him, but all the records :)

  3. Sara, Thank you for this letter. I grew up near Chadds Ford, PA, and have an art background, which is generational in my family. And have always admired the Wyeth’s! I’ve taken numerous trips to the Brandywine River Museum over the years, the museum which showcases the Wyeth’s Art in beautiful and historic Chadd’s Ford. First became interested in them when I was quite young in the mid 80’s, when Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga” series was revealed. Between the three Artist’s, I always tried to decide who was my favorite. I picked Andrew, initially, because of his style of realism and austere beauty. But always admired the more colorful and illustrative paintings of N.C. Then, finally, there is Jamie, who is like a blending of the two, but with his own, unique style. Today, looking at the three paintings you chose for this blog, colorful N.C., austere Andrew, I chose whimsical Jamie’s painting. I noticed in his other artwork, Jamie’s paintings “jump out” at you, then you read the title, and see how he “marries” humor, insight and whimsy that touches your heart! Like “Jenny Wibley Sings” did for me. Thanks again, Sara, for showcasing the Wyeth’s in this blog!

  4. I had the good fortune of growing up in an artist’s colony. Some of the offspring went on to careers in the arts, others felt inhibited by their artist parents talents and pursuits and chose “civilian ” professions. However, all of them chose self directed lives of non-conformitiy. The creative threads of their artist upbringing are woven into everything they do. Living well and fully is the ultimate art form.

    • Beautiful, Baird! I loved painting alongside my mother when I was very young, but put off studying art for many years out of a (I now see) silly reluctance to encroach on her territory. I found my way back to art during a hard time in my forties, and it has been a life- and soul-saver. Now I realize that there was plenty of room for both of us.

      Thank you too, Sara, for continuing the work of your father.

  5. The family influence works across the board, not just in art. We all learn by what we’re exposed to. My father had a small one-man business. So did I, because I saw how it was done. I’ve thought a lot about this, and had I had a doctor parent, I know I would have become a surgeon. Or, possibly, I would have become an engineer had someone explained what engineers do when I was in high school. I didn’t do either because, in hindsight, I could only discern/appreciate the path by seeing others on it.

    I’m sorry to say there are no artists in my family, but I blazed something of a trail for my daughter.

  6. My father painted. My mother painted. Once they both painted the same orchid from their wedding bouquet, and those amazingly-beautiful but quite different oil paintings still hang in my Dad’s home. Five children caused their lives to take a different path. My cousin told me not long ago, that he remembered something my father said when I was still a little child after he asked me a dreaded question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I said, “An artist!” He hollered back, very mad at me, “No! You can not be an artist!”
    It did not work. I became an artist. As an early artistic genius, it was very difficult to push back the fear of failure after being told that I was a failure from the beginning by my educators and my father. Attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and being left handed did not help.
    I studied the masters paintings from art books and copied paintings to imitate their strokes in my early years. Composition and perspective came easy in my own work. Color-mixing was a no-brainer. Where to go with my prolific ability was, and still is, an ongoing challenge.

    Then: Art-Shows, Museums, Art-Fairs, Fine Art Auctions, Competitions, and brick and mortar Art Galleries.

    Now: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Artwork Archive, American Artwork, and many more new ones everyday.

    I have done them all. I work hard at it everyday of my life. I think I now understand why my Dad was angry and afraid for me. Artist is something you become, and are for a lifetime.

    Continual sought after perfection can only be found in the “next” painting.

    Artistic growth is a never-ending personal exploration of infinite possibilities.

    • Louanne Headrick on

      Thank you Sharon for your insight and wisdom, most especially the last two lines which are fabulous reminders for all artists.

  7. Excellent letter. My influence was my grandfather who was a painter/ photographer/copyist and drank himself to death when I was young. But the fruits of his labour were everywhere. So I knew it could be done and that means everything to a child who dreams of being an artist. Now I live in a small town, still painting, with a studio that people and especially kids can visit. My biggest role is not in teaching them to do what I do, but simply to model an artist’s life for them. So that they know it can be done if they decide that’s what they want.

  8. No one in my close or extended family painted. The nearest was an uncle I was very close to who was a skilled cabinet builder. I learned a lot about design from him. Art was something that struck me very early and wore out pencils at the age of 5. I’ve always been puzzled as to where that art affliction came from. My art teacher in high school created what is now an AP art program for me and was eager and willing to get art scholarships for me, but my parents were not enthusiastic about it and discouraged me. I had to take a different path in life. Now in the freedom of old age art as brought me what I think was my real destiny and I am a different person now than I was the first 50 years of my life.
    So this thing I seemed to always have had is for me an independent event.

  9. Thank you for this letter. It is very close to my heart. I am a painter and had my son in my late 30’s. He is now 20 years old and studying auto design. As soon as he was born I talked art to him! I described the colors of shadows in the snow as we drove around Northern Michigan, or the greens on the trees close to us vs in the distance. He spent hours in my studio drawing and painting. He absorbed everything and is a fine plein air painter. His skills have surpassed mine, and I am truly proud of his achievements. Fortunately, he also inherited his father’s math and science skills!!!

  10. Especially like the “secong generation” research-angle you took in this letter, dear Sara. So….I don’t have an “artist” lineage, per se. But my mother, grandmother and great aunts were wildly creative. They grew up on farms where they practiced the “low arts” of painting plates, quilting, embroidery, crocheting, beading, baking, canning and sewing their family’s clothes–somtimes out of flower-sacks! I grew up surrounded by the fruits of their unsung labor, with an inherited way of seeing/being,. One that turns the ordinary, with no art supplies, into a small extraordinary thing. Something wearable, edible, comforting, useful. Something, sometimes, tucked in a corner, where the tired eye coukd fall, rest and thoughtfully linger.

  11. Great discussion.I have benefitted from the SPACIAL INTELLIGENCE that I inherited from my Dad. Conceptual rendering and visual input are my tools. I think that’s part of what we gain from parents & grandparents.
    I also agree that a creative home environment normalizes what would otherwise be seen as hobbies and un-professional pursuits.
    Given the two…and you’ve got a winning creative combinaton of bonus skills and confidence.
    What you make of such a gift – is your lifelong journey.

  12. Louanne Headrick on

    Parents of the working class may have held within the fearsome burden of unexpressed creativity, unexpressed due to to support they gave their children through work and service. I always felt my Mother would have been an artistic soul if only she had had the opportunity. Therefore, I salute her from whom my artistic gifts descended. Thank you Mom!

  13. I have observed artists and their offspring and have come to the conclusion that many sons & daughters feel they can’t compete with their professional artist parent and they follow a different creative path. If the parent is a visual artist the son/daughter is a musician for example.

  14. Mary Gayle Selfridge on

    My four year od grandson spent most of his visit with us in my art room, he called it the elf factory.He created drawings and surprises with watercolor oencils.It was the best part of our holiday

  15. …….. but the real question is why? When our daughters were young, I was engrossed in photography – multiple format cameras, darkroom, the whole picture. They were also asked to come along and share in field trips and darkroom chores.
    Now I am back into acrylics; my digital photos serve more as reference materials than an end unto themselves. One daughter has some interest in things artistic, but not overly so. The other is doing really neat graphite works and creative needleworks. Hardly genetic or even from observing, but probably from the one thing we seem to forget when talking about family creativity – we did not teach them an art or a craft; we taught them how to look, how to see, and how to listen. That is what makes all the difference!

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Featured Workshop

February 14, 2018 to February 28, 2018

mexico-pleinairTake a winter break! Join me, Hermann Brandt for one or both of these retreat/workshops in sunny Mexico.

Casa Buena is a gorgeous art retreat center, right on the ocean. Jane Romanishko is a fabulous host and goes above and beyond to make sure you have a fantastic time. Included: Most art materials, meals, accommodation, a jungle-river boat trip and several sightseeing ventures. For beginner to intermediate level artists. Figure drawing (Feb 14-21) – from life; nude model. Plein air (Feb 21-28) – beach scenes, fishing villages and surrounding hills. I look forward to sharing a time of fun and learning. the Canals
Oil on Linen
40x30 inches

Featured Artist

A professional painter in both watercolor and oil for over 35 years, I have been creating plein air workshops in Europe for artists to join me since 1996. Plein air is one of the most exciting methods of painting, and I teach a very easy to learn way of capturing the light quickly, that any artist can apply to their own work during our adventures to Europe. Travel for artists is a great way to immerse yourself in painting and make great advances in your techniques by watching other professionals work, and by sharing your own ideas with other artists we all grow! Authentic locations, such as a 12th Century Castle in Ireland, a French Maison in the countryside of France, or an Italian Villa in an historic hilltop village in Italy are carefully chosen. We want our artists and non-painting guests to feel relaxed and at home, with en-suite bedrooms, excellent chef prepared cuisine, and convenient transfers to painting and exploring locations so you can be where you want to be to create. Join me on our next exciting journey!


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