In late spring of this dismal, isolating year of pandemic and racial discord Betsy James Wyeth passed peacefully. She was 98, spent nearly every summer of her life in Maine and had been married to her husband, artist Andrew Wyeth who died in 2009, for 69 years. When they first met, more or less accidentally in 1939, she was “tanned and seventeen” like the girl in Jesse Winchester’s spot-on country-rock ballad telling of the inarticulate, “sham-a-ling-dong-ding” bedazzlement of “a teenager in love.” Andy was undone. Betsy “completed him,” not least because her own artistic

sensibility complemented his in ways Hollywood romance and pop ballads never imagined. During that first encounter Betsy introduced him to Christina and Alvaro Olson, whom she had known since childhood. Before they parted, Andy invited her to a dance in nearby Rockland, where a week later he would ask her to marry him. Thus began an affair of the heart that carried them through nearly seven decades of marriage. Andrew reinvented that romance in his many direct and indirect portraits of his wife throughout their lives together. His final tempera painting depicts a ghostly Friendship sloop scudding past Betsy’s meticulously restored sail loft on their Maine island home. Years earlier, Betsy served as her husband’s model for “Christina’s World” (1948). “Maga’s Daughter,” painted in 1966 when the artist was at the very height of his emotionally precise powers, is among Wyeth’s best known and most beloved images.

The title of the portrait refers to the pet name Betsy and her two older sisters called their mother. No longer the youthful, fluttery teenager he married, she is seen in this portrait as something very different, a pulled-together, self-confident woman in her prime, the mother of their grown boys, the headmistress of his immaculate world. Her face is framed by the drawstrings of an antique Quaker riding hat. The strings are loose, unwrapping the gift of her face to us, the viewers, and drawing us into the flicker of a smile that is at once alluring and distant — as if to say “come closer,” but don’t presume that you will ever really know who I am. Her uncontained spirit, however, surges quietly from those blooded cheeks. The painting is as charged and sensual as any nude Andrew Wyeth ever painted.

The portrait isolates Betsy against a neutral background, purposefully indeterminate, un-locatable in space and time. It is deeply nuanced and shaded beyond the simplicity of a classic, Renaissance-inspired composition — stacked triangle, rectangle, circle, ellipse — an elegant Palladian façade where surface simplicity begets interior mystery. It betrays nothing outwardly but somehow suggests the richness, the closeness, the sweet and sometimes difficult complexity of their relationship — which is to say that she was everything to the artist, and he knew that she knew this, too. The meticulous modeling of her flesh and dark hair, parted to reveal her strong forehead and high cheekbones, the flush of her cheeks rising to liquid, brown eyes averted to something just out of our view but that has just caught her attention — one of her children arriving for a visit, perhaps. Or, she is contemplating one of her husband’s newest paintings, about which he would always ask her opinion, and she would answer forthrightly. She often titled his paintings, too; I suspect for this portrait as well, with its suggestion of matrilineal descent and familial continuity. Early in their marriage she had saved his work from anecdotal clutter and cliché, qualities from his father’s (N. C.’s) teaching she intuitively rebelled against as constraining her husband’s developing genius. She was immensely important in nurturing Andrew’s work and was much more than his muse; she was his most trusted critic, editor, and best friend.

The smile, just beginning to cross her lips, is private. It is for her alone to share with the artist for whom she might, or might not, say what it meant, from what emotional well-spring of constancy and desire it arises. Probably, she would not need to tell him; he would know from the tilt of her head, a sidelong glance. The brown tunic she wears is without ornamentation, a dusky, autumn landscape of soft browns and gliding russets — save the triptych of buttons marching in unison up from the bottom edge toward the high, stiffly encircling collar. Her outfit has a military or architectural air of precision, the jacket a truncated pyramid, timelessly there, supporting her alert face with its precariously balanced and unexpected head covering — whose edges twist in space like a Mobius strip or the mathematical symbol for infinity. Any breeze, any word will upend the illusion. Wyeth’s is an airless world, forever inhabited by him and Betsy alone.

She was the human embodiment of Occam’s razor. To her, intractable problems were best solved by the most obvious, simplest answers. So, when local fishermen in Port Clyde and Friendship struggled with territorial disputes over fishing grounds, Betsy built a dock and told them that if they behaved and worked out their differences, they could all off-load their lobster traps on Allen Island, saving each of them immense amounts of time, effort, and money. It was a festering problem affecting Betsy’s neighbors, the fishermen and their families, friends she greatly admired and cared about, and that the state of Maine had never managed to help. Betsy did it in an afternoon when all of them gathered on her dock to celebrate its completion and joyfully welcome unfamiliar coexistence. Organization, enacting order out of chaos, was among her many strengths that also enabled her husband to paint a world so close to home, so quotidian, so true, yet so “wondrously strange,” as she often described his work.

Betsy loved history. Their home in the Brandywine River Valley was literally next door to a pivotal Revolutionary War battlefield. In Maine, Allen Island was among the earliest North American landings explored by European adventurers who then pushed farther up the St. George River, past Betsy’s family’s future home in Cushing. They set foot on her island on Pentecost Sunday, 1605. Betsy would eventually retrofit vernacular buildings, both in Pennsylvania and in Maine, into comfortable homes and private museums that seemed always to echo what she once called “the whisper of history.” That same whisper is heard in many of Wyeth’s paintings, including and especially “Maga’s Daughter.” Unsurprisingly, her architectural sensibility was always informed by practicality, proportion, and common sense. And, if not exactly designed for easy comfort, then they presented with an elegant, rigorous efficiency in order to live more fully in her husband’s sometimes messy world where her buildings often became the silent protagonists of his richly metaphoric paintings.

“Maga’s Daughter” seems in so many ways to affirm not just marital affection with its blush of uncontrollable beauty, but a true artistic partnering, a collaboration between two bright, passionate, independent souls who, as Betsy once remarked, were like old ships, battered but still afloat after so many years together. So strong is her presence in the portrait she might well have signed it, instead of, or in addition to, her husband’s signature.

The American Mona Lisa? What museum would not hang the two paintings together? What conversations could be overheard? What secrets might they share?

Now, reunited with Andrew in the Olson family graveyard not far from her girlhood summer home on Broad Cove, she just needs Andy to introduce her to Leonardo. Da Vinci will be charmed, as were all who knew her, if only in our imaginations through an ageless, enigmatic, loving portrait.