Sayeth the Soothsayer, "Beware the Ides of March."

The famous warning from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" regarding March 15 found its visualization in another masterpiece, Andrew Wyeth's "Ides of March," painted in 1974.

Almost immediately sold to a private collector, the painting has been effectively erased from public view for almost 40 years. It has only appeared in two exhibitions in Japan and one in Kansas City.

While it's on temporary loan to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., visitors can see the egg-tempera painting surrounded by 33 preliminary studies.

"They might begin to see that art is not as easy as you think," said curator Virginia O'Hara. "It's like writing a novel, writing a symphony, like doing any major astrophysics. There's a lot that goes into it."

Wyeth made more than 60 studies while honing the deceptively simple image of his dog, Nell, lying in front of the smoldering embers of a fireplace hung with menacing-looking, wrought-iron tools.

Thirty-three of those drawings and watercolors are on display at the Brandywine, including a very rough watercolor of a dark, boxy shape with a little white triangle at the bottom.

It was the first time Wyeth committed the idea to paper. He noted on the drawing: "The Eyes of March."

"It's basically the shape of the fireplace in his house, and at the bottom is a little triangle of a dog's head poking out of the darkness," said O'Hara showing off the drawing in the Brandywine's art vault. "The eyes are very prominent, so we think he was punning on that."

Studies show process, not meaning

Over the course of the studies, the dog moves from one side of the composition to the other, and back again. Nell looks up, falls asleep, hops up on a bench, then back down to the floor. The iron implements move around, changing shape and texture. A cast-iron skillet disappears altogether.

Wyeth started with a strong impression, and constantly reworked it, finding the right compositional structure, subtle emotional symbolism, and texture of a crisp winter morning.

The studies illuminate his process but not his intentions. Many of Wyeth's subjective meanings are buried. "He didn't want to give secrets away," said O'Hara. "If your imagination gets caught, that's what's important."

The studies are owned by Wyeth's wife, Betsy, who archived the drawings. She put them in order based on her conversations with her husband.

Andrew was known to have been cagey with her, too.

"He may have been stringing her along," said O'Hara. "But the chronology that is there makes sense."


Video by Charlie Kaier