It was 21 years ago that the secret of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures was revealed to the world to great fanfare. TIME Magazine graced its cover (above) with the face that launched a thousand speculations. Few art stories have captured the public imagination in America since.
The Helga Pictures story had everything the media could ask for—celebrity, money, secrets revealed, and most of all sex, sex, sex (or at least the possibility of sex). Between 1971 and 1985, Andrew Wyeth had secretly painted Helga Testorf, a younger married woman who had been nursing his neighbor Karl Kuerner and then became Wyeth’s assistant and nurse. Wyeth painted Helga every way imaginable in every type of light, examining the way light played on her clothed and unclothed form both indoors and in the great outdoors. Amazingly, only Wyeth and his model knew. Two hundred and forty works in watercolor and tempera later, Wyeth decided to reveal his series to the world, starting with his wife, Betsy. (Helga's husband, John, was reportedly out of the country when the news broke and only found out when he saw the TIME cover.) The Wyeths famously keep their private lives private, but it doesn’t take much to imagine what the reaction would have been. Many of the works are innocent enough, such as Braids (above). Many, however, appear less than innocent, such as the nude study below.
This watercolor of Helga’s back evolved into a painting Wyeth later called Baracoon. To disguise Helga’s identity, Wyeth darkened her skin and changed her hair color and made the woman into a African-American. (“Baracoon” refers to a form of cell that African-American slaves were held in.) Despite this sleight of hand, it was only a matter of time before the secret would break. Wyeth sold the 240 Helga Pictures as a whole to an American investor named Leonard E.B. Andrews in 1986. Andrews, in turn, sold the collection to Japanese investors. They, in turn, sold the collection to a group of U.S. investors for $100 million USD. The Helga Pictures first toured the United States from 1987 through 1989 and subsets of the collection continue to tour. The catalogue from the original exhibit remains among the top ten best-selling art books of all time. Questions remain (did they or didn’t they?), but there can be no question about the power of this prolonged examination of one model by one amazing artist.