Andrew and Helga

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will state again that artistic muses can be found anywhere. On this blog I’ve profiled muses who were “discovered” in varying settings and with differing relationships to the artists themselves. Many of the great works of art have featured subjects who were sometimes fellow artists, prostitutes, dancers, aristocrats, wives and lovers (or in some cases the lovers of other artists), milliners, peasants, small-town girls, dressmakers, and even professional artist’s models :yay!: It’s a mistake to define who a muse should be. That’s up to the artist to decide. There’s only one common denominator; the feelings dictate that the creative impulse must be carried out. An artist is compelled to “examine” a subject, develop intimacy with a subject, put that subject on canvas or, in the case of Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf, many canvases.

So who is Helga Testorf? She is a Prussian-born immigrant who was a caregiver to one of Wyeth’s neighbors near his home in rural Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. She was 32 years old when Wyeth first met her in the early 1970s, and something about the blond beauty stirred the artist in a very profound way. They were merely acquaintances for a while until finally Wyeth asked her to pose. Helga had never posed before but was willing. From the years 1971-1985, Wyeth produced over 240 works of Helga. Although known as a master in egg tempera, Wyeth used various mediums, and posed Helga in various settings; indoors and outdoors, nude and clothed.

The work sessions with Helga were carried out in secret, unbeknownst even to Wyeth’s own wife and Helga’s husband. The pairing proved to be a fertile artistic relationship, and Wyeth’s stunning output rocked the art world when it was finally revealed in the mid 1980s, even making the cover of Time magazine.

Wyeth’s portrait of Helga, Braids:

In his represenational style, employing a controlled technique and subtle palette, Wyeth depicts Helga often in a state of isolation. How perfectly that mirrors the private, behind-closed-doors nature of their work sessions, which were literally hidden from the outside world.

A nude Helga in Overflow:

Helga has said that this piece, titled Letting Her Hair Down, is her personal favorite of the series:

The Helga works are arguably the most famous series of a single sitter in all of art. While I was gathering information for this post, I came across some pretty rude and cynical articles, written of course by uppity, judgmental, arrogant “art critic” types, who get off on ridicule and salacious speculation. I can’t stand those people, mostly because none of them are artists themselves and certainly have never been muses to anyone (which is why I try, whenever possible, to eliminate their petty “critiques” from this blog). For all their so-called “knowledge”, they seem so ignorant about the nature of creative inspiration and the relationship that evolves between an artist and his model. If only they understood the thrilling experience of an imagination stimulated, a soul nourished, emotions kindled, and a deep bond developing between two people. Sometimes I think they just don’t get it. But I’ve been there. I know how it feels.

Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf remain close friends to this day. Their relationship, and the art created as a result, has endured over many, many years, so I’d say they have the last word. The Helga series is artist/muse embodied to perfection. And every artist should be so lucky to find his Helga.

13 thoughts on “Andrew and Helga

  1. I don’t know if I would be able to keep a secret like that from anyone especially my wife. 240 works of one person makes for a significant….well everything; storage space, time, communication, mmm…quite a secret….and can add up to problems; so it is good to hear that “all was well that ends well”; lovely story Claudia.

    Interesting the one that Helga liked best.

  2. artmodel says:

    Robert,

    Forget it, there is NO WAY I could keep a secret like that! From both a logistical standpoint and a psychological one. Like you said, it can easily “add up to problems”.

    But Wyeth and Helga managed to pull it off. How, I’ll never know. But a lot of memorable art was the result of their clandestine endeavor.

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Claudia

  3. Isabella says:

    Quite by accident, I became a sculptors’ muse. The artist that I inspire & myself tried to keep our sessions a secret from our spouses. It’s impossible! Our marriages were put at great risk of DIVORCE!

    • artmodel says:

      Isabella,

      I hope everything turned out okay! Keeping a secret like that is very difficult I’m sure. Even if there is no sexual affair, the trust and intimacy of an artist/muse relationship can be very threatening to the respective significant others.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Claudia

      • Isabella says:

        Claudia,
        My visits to the Sculptor’s studio currently aren’t as frequent.. My husband & I seem to be working through issues BUT my Artist is at a loss. He’s having trouble getting a commissioned piece done. I really never thought that my input could make such a difference! There’s a couple of sculptures that he calls “The sculptures that WE did together”. The whole muse/artist relationship is so emotional.
        Isabella

  4. Charles says:

    This is such a wonderful site

  5. qesher says:

    Upon beginning formal art classes lately, I am presented with figure art in the curriculum. At age 56 there’ not much I haven’t seen (I’m a retireð cop). Nevertheless I felt I should psych up for it and am finding it’s a respectful academic matter. Much trepidation over nothing. ….just don’t make mutual eye contact and these men and women know what they’re doing.

    • artmodel says:

      qesher,

      First of all, congratulations on beginning formal art classes! You will learn so much, and enjoy it I’m sure.

      You describe the life drawing experience perfectly. Many people, before their first time with it, experience “trepidation”. But it’s really over nothing, like you said. It’s not scandalous, it’s not uncomfortable, and once everyone is focused – artists and models alike – it’s pretty serious business. To some people, art modeling is a misunderstood profession. I’m so glad that you “get it” right away.

      Thanks for posting a comment! I hope you continue to visit Museworthy for more of the model’s viewpoint.

      Good luck with your art!

      Claudia

  6. Shirley McKenzie says:

    Only the artist and model know the truth of the ‘did they or did they not’. I only know that each time I view these pictures, I am filled with a sense of intimacy between the art and ME. I have entered into the secret.

  7. Anna H. Lucy says:

    That was a wonderful read, deep and insightful, I really enjoyed this post – and have written mine on Andrew Wyeths Art – you’d find it as you visit my blog and search for ‘Art Is Either A Daring Adventure Or Nothing At All’. The relationship between Helga and Andrew is a mystery and at the same time source of inspiration for so many contemporary artist. In my opinion it was this deep love, respect and affection between Andrew and his ‘Prusian Girl’ that enabled the both amazing people create the one of the most fascinating collation of all times. Not everybody knows but Helga Testorf is an incredible painter herself as well and I only hope that one day she will reveal her artworks as well. Thank you for this very beautiful article that I read with so much pleasure at 30th anniversary of revealing ‘Helga’s Pictures’ – next year there is Andrews 100 birthday – another good reason to celebrate.

    • artmodel says:

      Anna,

      Your blog is fantastic! Really like what you’re doing. And I’m honored that you enjoyed my post on Andrew and Helga. This post from eight years ago still receives many views! I think that speaks to the enduring interest in Wyeth’s art and, specifically, his haunting works of Helga. Such a sublime pairing of artist and muse.

      Thank you so much for your generous comments, Anna. I appreciate it very much. And I’m delighted that you found Museworthy and added your voice!

      Claudia

  8. It looks like I’m not the only “binge” blog reader! Though it’s taken me a while to turn back the hands of Museworthy time.

    Thank you for introducing me to Wyeth’s work. I love representational art and have recently been modeling for an atelier specializing in such work. Very rewarding.

    Anna H. Lucy’s comment about Wyeth and Testorf both being artists makes their collaboration even more meaningful and understandable, Surprising that they kept it all a secret for so long. But it would make sense if neither of their spouses “got it”. And then it is all the more meaningful for the two misunderstood and kindred spirits to relish and protect their collaboration.

    • artmodel says:

      malefiguredrawingmodel,

      This Museworthy post still gets many views, even after nine years! The collaboration between Wyeth and Helga really seems to intrigue people. I see often in my search terms stats, “Wyeth Helga paintings”, and it brings them here. One of the great ‘artist-muse’ pairings.

      Thanks for commenting, and bingeing!

      Claudia

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