The Percheron On The World’s Most Famous Farm

From Gene Logsdon
Excerpted from The Draft Horse Journal, Summer, 2002
In Memoriam, Andrew Wyeth, July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009

This is a fairy tale story that is not at all a fairy tale. The story has so many parts to it that I scarcely know where to begin. Louise Kuerner’s horse, Dentzel, the Percheron referred to in the title, lives on the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a farm immortalized on canvas by Andrew Wyeth, widely viewed as America’s foremost living painter and by many art lovers as one of the best artists anywhere in any time. He has used the Kuerner farm’s building, animals, fields and people hundreds of times as subject or models. I might argue that Dentzel is now the most famous draft horse in the world too because recently, Wyeth painted him in a work titled “Karlanna,” and a watercolor study done for the final painting called “Fenced In.”

Dentzel’s other distinction in life is that he is currently the only draft horse to be driven (by Louise) in the enormously popular Parade of Carriages that precedes the Point-to-Point  steeplechase races at Winterthur in the state of Delaware every spring. “At 17.2 hands, he’s the biggest horse in the parade,” says Louise, laughing. “But that’s what I wanted. A big horse. When my first horse, Pony, died, I thought I didn’t want to go through that heartbreak again. But when I found Dentzel, I just had to have him. He was even sick when I first saw him, not a smart way to buy a horse, but we nursed him back to good health and he’s been just splendid ever since.”

Louise is married to Karl J. Kuerner, a rising star of an artist himself. (A recent painting sold in the six figures.) He has painted Dentzel many times in his own work. “Well, he has to pay for his keep some way,” Karl says jokingly. Louise’s pastime and passion is driving horse-drawn carriages on the farm and over the many trails along the Brandywine River nearby. She is a regular participant in the Parade of Carriages. She gathers with other drivers at George Weymouth’s farm (another accomplished artist) nearby and together they drive their horses and carriages to the Parade at Winterthur about six miles away.

That Karl is an artist of recognized merit is an intricate part of the fairy tale that is not a fairy tale. To explain, I must start at the beginning of the story, or at least one of the beginnings. Wyeth named his painting of Dentzel, “Karlanna” after Karl and Anna Kuerner, the artist Karl’s grandparents, now deceased. They were the first Kuerners on the farm that was to become so well known throughout the world. Wyeth used them as models for some of his most masterful paintings. The Kuerners, poor immigrants from Germany after the First World War, had to overcome almost overwhelming financial and personal odds to get themselves established on their farm. Having known them myself, I would guess that Dentzel, standing so stolidly and unyieldingly inside the scraggly pasture fence in Wyeth’s paintings, reminded the Wyeths (Betsy, Andrew’s wife, usually titles the paintings) of that steadfast, stalwart, stubborn farm couple who figured so prominently in Andrew’s work. At any rate, as the last unexpected turn in the fairy tale story that is not a fairy tale, who could have ever predicted that the relationship between this hardscrabble farm and one of America’s greatest artistic geniuses would result in a Kuerner grandson, Karl J., becoming a well-regarded and successful artist too. The wonder of this for me is that both Andrew and Karl continue to draw inspiration from the same little farm. Karl once told that while discussing this rather amazing fact with Andrew the latter commented: “And we haven’t even hit the tip of this iceberg yet.”

There was a clue that the fairy tale might  turn out this way. The first Karl, whom I shall call Old Karl in deference to his son, Karl Jr. and his grandson Karl J., the artist, had a brother in Germany who was also an artist. The tendency did run in the blood. It also helps to explain why Old Karl allowed the painters from the nearby Chadds Ford school of art (The Pyle School of history) to roam his property with their brushes and easels. Other farmers in the neighborhood in earlier days looked with displeasure on “those weird people” poking over their fields. Old Karl made them feel at home. Another famous painter, Peter Hurd, who was, as Old Karl told me, “crazy about horses,” boarded  his riding horses on the farm right along with Karl’s drafters and paid the rent by giving Karl a paining. N.C. Wyeth, the very successful illustrator and painter and Andrew’s father, painted on the farm too. According to Henry C. Pitz’s book, The Brandywine Tradition,  N.C. incurred the displeasure of a bull on one of his countryside painting jaunts and escaped only by jumping into a farm pond. This might be part of the reason why his paintings never lapsed into the fuzzy “peace and plenty” tranquility that affects so many artists charmed by scenes of rural life.

But it was with Andrew Wyeth that Old Karl formed the most endearing and enduring  relationship. He even gave Andrew a key to the house so that he felt free to come and go as he wished. While the Kuerners worked at farming, Andrew worked at painting.  “He wanted solitude, to be left alone,” Old Karl told me. “We tried to keep it that way. We farmers understand that.”

But the Kuerner farm has a story to tell quite apart from the artistry that blossomed on it. The farm can serve as an excellent model for telling the history of agriculture in America up to 1990. The house was built, according to Old Karl, around 1706. Even a person of average height must bend down to go through the entrance doorway, a nod to the fact that people were definitely shorter three centuries ago. The house was used as a hospital for wounded American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and apparently Washington and Lafayette made it their headquarters during he Battle of the Brandywine. That alone is enough to make the farm a special place.

I have little knowledge of what occurred on the farm between then and the 1920s when the Kuerners first rented it and then bought it, but so much did the farm continue the traditions of earlier agriculture that when I first visited it in 1967, it might as well have been 1867. Everything I saw there reminded me of my grandfathers and the long tradition of pre-industrial farming that I almost missed. I understood when Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s model for the famous “Helga paintings” and Old Karl’s nurse in his final days, told me later that when she, also an immigrant from Germany, first came across the railroad track and saw the farm spread out before her, she was so enchanted that she resolved immediately to live somewhere close by.

I was writing a book about Andrew Wyeth at the time. His art on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had smitten me. For the first time I had found an artist who in both his work and his articulation of his view on art made sense to me. I knew that his views about the creative impulse applied to writing too. I thought that I could discover how to write better if I could learn enough about Andrew Wyeth. Both from that notion and from being a farmer myself, I found the Kuerner farm to be a magical place. There was no other word that worked. I saw all round me Wyeth paintings in the flesh, so to speak. It was as if I were viewing Michelangelo’s David, and the statue came alive and spoke to me.

But more than that, if there can be more than that, the farm was also a museum of sustainable farming only slowly and grudgingly giving way to modern technology and the advance of the suburbs. Like an Amish farm, it was able to operate to a certain extent independently of the mainstream economy. Until the mid-1940s there was no electricity on the farm and with the way the farm was operated in 1967, it could still have functioned without it. The water in the house and barn was piped from the never-failing spring on the hill across the road. It flowed first through the house and then the barn without any technology or expense of power except gravity. The water never froze. For three centuries it had just kept running that way. The barn took advantage of the same free power of gravity in another way. It was built into a steep hill. On the back hill side, the Kuerners could enter the top hay loft floor at ground level and unload without much need for lifting power, and then feed downward from that floor level to the second floor and then on down to livestock on the bottom level…

The Kuerners still heated and cooked with wood. Even in her nineties in the 1990s, Anna continued to rise at night to chop kindling in the woodhouse off the kitchen, talking to her cats in German. There was a smokehouse to keep the meat; a springhouse to cool the milk. One of Karl’s and Anna’s daughters, also named Louise, told me that when she was growing up on the farm, sometimes a frog would jump in the pan of milk cooling in the spring water. “Worse that that,” her brother, Karl Jr. chimed in. “Once Daddy noticed a frog swimming in the milk when he got to the cream station. He grabbed it and stuck it in his shirt before anyone noticed.“ Both of them laughed hilariously at the memory….

This was the marvelously self-sufficient world that Andrew Wyeth discovered when, as a boy, he walked over the hill from the Wyeth property, which abuts the Kuerner farm. It was a world totally different from his own rather upper middle class surroundings, but one far from the “simple life” or “bucolic serenity” that upper middle class people fancy they will find on farms. The Kuerners liked to tell, giggling, how  their mother started fires with drawings and paintings that Andrew left in the house, scraps that would be worth thousands of dollars today.  Andrew learned that the Kuerner Farm could be filled with darkness of the spirit as well as light, of tragic sadness as well as joy, of hardship more than ease—a family depending on their wits to survive both nature and what we euphemistically refer to as mainstream economics.

I can amuse myself for hours meditating on how this fortuitous meeting between a practical farm family and a dreamy artist from upper middle class society could produce art so down to earth, so reflective of the real farm culture the world now seems to be abandoning. Whatever mystery is involved, people with roots in rural life sense something in the paintings that they understand but cannot name. Wyeth is as popular in Russia and Japan as he is in America because the Russians and the Japanese are even more aware of the passing of traditional rural life than we are. There must be hundreds of millions of us…. One of the strangest sights I ever saw on the Kuerner Farm was a group of diminutive Japanese visitors walking rather confusedly across the pasture fields, seeking in vain for what they saw in the paintings.

For that reason I must be careful that I do not read into a painting just what I want to see there. I think of the one that Andrew gave Old Karl, one of the first he did on the farm, when he was only 16 years old. It is a rendering of Old Karl’s workhorses (they were Percherons too) and a hired man, plowing… It would be easy to interpret the painting, “Spring Landscape At Kuerners” as a rush of sentimental romanticism or of true sorrow for the passing of horse farming and the passing of the family farm… I made that mistake at first. But as Andrew told me, he is not interested in farming as such, nor does he try to make historical or sentimental statements with his paintings. He just embraces what he sees and how he sees it and then works on it as if he were portraying, as he puts it, “my own little world.”… In this case, Old Karl told me, the young Wyeth was struck by the way the sun’s rays at a certain angle made the sweat on the horses glisten with an almost unearthly glow. Many farmers who have worked horses are familiar with this sight. That is why, I think, so many people with roots in farming love Wyeth’s paintings and why some urban art critics, not fortunate enough to know that culture, do not… With a similar ignorance, they don’t see much difference between a Wyeth painting and say, a Currier and Ives illustration.

But here’s the irony that forever baffles the student of human behavior. Practical Old Karl sold that painting for $12,000 so he could buy a tractor. The person who bought it turned around and resold it to a collector for $65,000 as Wyeth tells in it in his Autobiography. Today the painting might sell for over a quarter million. But Old Karl wanted money to buy a tractor and he wanted it now. Imagine: the farmer sells a priceless painting that immortalizes plowing with horses in order to buy a tractor. That’s the history of farming in one sentence….
~
See also Gene’s Organic Art?
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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5 Comments

Kerri, I forgot to answer your question above. Yes, this is the article that Andy liked. It is quite a bit longer than shown here. Gene

Robert Haugland: I remember clearly our farm before electricity. My clearest memory is of the kerosene lamp that fell on the floor and broke into pieces, leaving us in instand darkness. Instead of bursting into flame, like it easily could have, the wick of the lamp was extinguished and no fire. Oh, but don’t get me started on pre-electric adventures. The real lesson is that we were happy enough not knowing what we were missing. Gene Logsdon

Gene,

This story reminds me of the stories that my father used to tell about the farm he grew up on in North Dakota. They had no electricity then and the farm was similiar in many ways to this farm. Thank you for this story!

Robert Haugland,

Dahinda, IL

Wyath. Dang this no spell check!

Kerri in AK

Gene,

Is this the article you wrote that moved Andrew Wyath to invite you to visit? If so, I could see how he’d have been comfortable with the offer.

Excellent piece and a fine way to remember Andrew Wyatt.

Kerri in AK

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