Betsy James Wyeth, 1921-2020

The late wife of Maine’s famous painter helped put the Island Institute on firm footing

Story and photos by Peter Ralston 

The publication you are reading was inspired by Betsy Wyeth.

When Betsy, whom I first met when I was eight years old, bought 450-acre Allen Island, six miles off Port Clyde, she asked me to help her figure out what to do with it; within a month or so Philip Conkling and I met and together we worked with Betsy to implement her sweeping vision for Allen.

We all put a lot of time and hard work into that early island world of Betsy’s and in the process Philip conceived what became the Island Institute.

Allen Island was the anvil upon which we forged a lot of our earliest ideas, and in the spring of 1983 we shared the nascent business plan for launching the Island Institute with Betsy. She liked what she saw, but really honed-in on our intention to publish something for what would be our membership base.

“Look, if you are going to publish something, just don’t make it a self-congratulatory, mimeographed newsletter like all the other organizations. Make it exceptional! If you do, I’ll give you ten of Andy’s prints to sell.”

We did, she did, and the Institute was off and running. We published the first Island Journal in 1984 and it was instrumental in our getting established in both the summer and year-round communities.

Even as we were expanding the size and scope of the Institute’s services, we kept an oar in with Betsy on Allen, and subsequently also Benner Island, as she continued to refine and expand upon her earliest ideas for the properties. Like Andy working on a major painting, Betsy started with an unerring vision and painstakingly built upon that. Instead of working with pencils, brushes, paint, paper, and panels, her tools included work crews, boats, skidders, barges, fire, intensity, unwavering conviction and, always, that truly extraordinary vision of hers driving it all.

Betsy was not content just to preserve the land she owned out there. She was always all about the people who also worked on the islands. She built infrastructure so some of the lobstermen of Port Clyde, Cushing, and Friendship would always have a base out in their traditional grounds.

To my knowledge, not another wealthy summer person has come remotely close to so genuinely accommodating those working people who preceded—and would follow—her here. I will never forget one of them, a friend, a tough man with a big heart, coming to tears as he spoke to me of his gratitude to her in encouraging him to have a berth out where his grandfather used to fish.

The other working man she took care of was, of course, Andy. It is impossible to fully quantify her impact on his lifetime’s work, but as their son Jamie put it, “She should have also signed his paintings.” Andy acknowledged to me and others that he simply never would have become Andrew Wyeth without her.

Years ago I wrote about them:

“The competitive tension in this grand union is palpable but critical, and I cannot help but think of the ancient Greek word for competition, competra, which means ‘to rise together.’ And of ‘concerto,’ with its double meaning of joining together, working in concert, but also, from the Latin, to fight or to contend.

“Betsy’s and Andy’s long life together has often been tumultuous… but their carefully managed frisson has kept these two lovers passionate, edgy, and astonishingly productive. Their respective and combined genius has always fed on competition. They have worked in concert and they will each, someday, leave great masterworks behind, having risen together.”


For a deeper understanding of the Wyeths and Betsy Wyeth’s role in her husband’s work, readers are encouraged to visit the Wyeth section of Peter Ralston’s website— The content includes a 12-minute film about Betsy produced by the Farnsworth Art Museum.