Decoder Ring

The Great Helga Hype

In 1986, painter Andrew Wyeth revealed a secret collection of provocative paintings implied to be the product of an affair. But the story was more complicated than it appeared.

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Episode Notes

In 1986, Andrew Wyeth was the most famous painter in America. He was a household name, on the cover of magazines, and tapped to paint presidents. And then he revealed a secret cache of 240 pieces of artwork, many provocative, all featuring the same nude female model. This collection, called The Helga Pictures, had been completed for over 15 years and hidden from his wife, until they were revealed and wound up on the covers of both Time Magazine and Newsweek. The implication of these paintings were clear: Wyeth must have been having an affair. But then the story got complicated. Was it a genuine sex scandal? A hoax? Or something else entirely? In this episode, we examine this 35-year old media story to try and detangle some of these questions.

Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include Doug McGill, former New York Times reporter; Neil Harris, author of Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience; Cathy Booth Thomas, former Time magazine correspondent; Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, art historian and curator; Jeannie McDowell, former Time magazine correspondent; Chris Lione, former art director at Art and Antiques; Joyce Stoner, Wyeth scholar; Peter Ralston, Wyeth photographer and friend; and Jim Duff, former director of the Brandywine River Museum.

This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.

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About the Show

In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

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