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In an old Maine farmhouse, see the real 'Christina's World' as Andrew Wyeth experienced it
CUSHING, Maine (AP) ' Andrew Wyeth's famous painting "Christina's World" shows a crippled woman dragging herself across a field toward a farmhouse. A tour of the house, which was declared a National Historic Landmark June 30, offers a fascinating, in-depth look at the real world of Christina Olson and her family, and also reveals the story of Wyeth's relationship with them.
Wyeth spent 30 years producing some 300 works of art depicting the Olsons and their home in Cushing, Maine. This summer and fall offer a rare opportunity to see 50 of those paintings and drawings at the Farnsworth Art Museum's Wyeth Center in the nearby town of Rockland, where they are on loan from Marunuma Art Park in Asaka, Japan, through Oct. 30, in a show called "Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World and the Olson House."
The original "Christina's World" painting is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but visiting the Olson House and the Farnsworth Art Museum allows you to stand in the artist's footsteps and see Christina's life as Wyeth beheld it. Looking out the windows of the upstairs bedrooms where he set up his easel, you see the field he depicted in the famous painting. You can even feel the breeze blowing through the window where he saw a tattered curtain that became the subject of another painting.
Heidi Chester of Hancock, N.H., visited the house and the Farnsworth last fall on a trip with her husband to midcoast Maine to celebrate a wedding anniversary. "My husband is a fancier of historic homes and I'm an artist, so I was really into seeing Wyeth's work," said Chester, who has an online business selling painted glassware and later blogged about her trip. "The sense of intimacy you have with the family and the painter is really remarkable. ... You're basically standing in the same place he was standing when he looked out the window and did the scene or did the sketches. You're seeing the same details. It's like you get a chance to be the artist. You're going back to that moment."
One of the most interesting artifacts in the house is an old wood stove by the kitchen door. A painting of Christina sitting by that stove is part of the Marunuma exhibit. As tour guide Nancy Harris put it, the kitchen of the house "truly was Christina's world." It's where Christina sat, greeting visitors and passers-by; it's where she and her brother huddled during cold Maine winters. The stove was used both for cooking and heating.
The first two floors of the house were built by Christina's maternal ancestors in the late 18th century; the third floor was added in 1871. Although Alvaro and Christina lived until the late 1960s, dying within a month of each other, the impoverished siblings never had running water or a phone. They are buried in a private cemetery across the road; Wyeth was buried there in 2009.
Wyeth met the Olsons in 1939 through his wife Betsy. Wyeth's father, the painter, N.C. Wyeth, had a summer home nearby. Betsy, whose family also spent summers in the area, was 10 when she met Christina, who was beloved by local children for her cookies and storytelling. After the Olsons died, the house was briefly used as an art gallery, and Betsy had fall leaves painted on the floor to preserve her childhood memory of leaves blowing in when the door was open.
A highlight of the tour is learning about the artistic choices Wyeth made in painting "Christina's World," which is one of the most famous American paintings of all time. Wyeth got the inspiration for the painting after seeing Christina crawling across the field "in May, when it was lush and green," as Harris put it. But when he painted the picture, he used fall colors, adding to the painting's stark and lonely mood. And though he observed Christina from an upstairs window, heading away from the house as she pulled herself to a garden where she grew flowers, he chose to depict her heading toward the house, up a hill. Christina was 55 when he finished the painting, but the figure in the drawing is of a young, shapely woman in a pretty dress. Wyeth used his wife and an aunt as models for the figure.
When the work was finished in 1948, the Wyeths hung it in their home and invited the Olsons over for dinner. Not a word about the painting was said during the meal, but afterward, Christina kissed Wyeth's hand in a sign of approval. The painting was then shown at a Manhattan gallery and was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art for $1,800. Wyeth received $1,400; the gallery got $400.
Though you'll have to visit MOMA in New York to see the original, there are reproductions of "Christina's World" at the Olson House, and sketches Wyeth did for the piece at the Farnsworth. At the Olson House and Farnsworth gift shops, fans can find the image on merchandise ranging from posters to stationery to notebooks. The figure of the woman from the painting can also be seen on the exterior of the Wyeth Center in Rockland, which is located in a white 19th century church.
"Christina's World" remains an immensely popular and well-known painting, but experts also consider it a masterpiece of 20th century realism in the American Gothic tradition.
"That whole quality of mankind's loneliness in the universe has never been expressed so powerfully," said Henry Adams, a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University.
The timing of the painting's debut in the postwar era helped contribute to its popularity. Although Christina had an undiagnosed neuromuscular condition, many people assume she had polio, a disease Americans were terrified of at the time, according to the Farnsworth's chief curator, Michael Komanecky.
The image of the remote farmhouse and Christina's fierce independence also evoked nostalgia and longing in an era when many Americans had left rural settings behind for cities and suburbs.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of "Christina's World" is its narrative quality ' the way the image suggests a story.
"Without knowing the story in advance, the viewer is compelled to ask, 'What is this woman doing in the field?'" said Komanecky. "It grabs your attention."
Wyeth, Adams said, "creates a character in an extraordinary way despite the fact that you don't see the woman's face."
Komanecky added that the painting also elicits a tremendous emotional response: "How could you not have empathy for someone who could live through that kind of hardship?"
The Olson House, about 14 miles from the Farnsworth, is not easy to find, despite a few small signs at local crossroads. GPS devices are not reliable in pinpointing the location; once you've found Hathorne Point Road in Cushing, keep going until it turns into a dirt road, at which point you can see the house. The Farnsworth offers a detailed map at the museum and on its website.
The house, owned by the museum since 1991, is mostly empty, save for a few objects like the woodstove and a crib. While the museum would love to have some of the items that were sold off after Christina died returned for display, there is one advantage to the "the spareness and emptiness of the house," Komanecky said. "It leaves much to the visitor's imagination, and focuses one's attention to looking out the windows," just as Wyeth did when painting "Christina's World."
If You Go...
OLSON HOUSE: Hathorne Point Road, Cushing, Maine; http://www.farnsworthmuseum.org/olson-house or 207-354-0102. Through Oct. 30, Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours on the hour. Admission to Olson House, $10; combination ticket with Farnsworth Museum and Wyeth Center, $17.
FARNSWORTH ART MUSEUM: 16 Museum St., Rockland, Maine; http://www.farnsworthmuseum.org/ or 207-596-6457. Wyeth Center located a block away. Hours vary by season. Through Oct. 31, open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wednesdays, until 8 p.m.). Admission to museum, $12; combination ticket with Olson House, $10. At the Wyeth Center through Oct. 30, 50 works on loan from Marunuma Art Park in Asaka, Japan, called "Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World and the Olson House."
CHRISTINA'S WORLD: The original painting is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, 11 W. 53rd St., fifth floor Painting and Sculpture galleries; http://www.moma.org. Hours vary by season; through Sept. 1, Sunday-Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Adults, $20; children 16 and under free.
DINING IN ROCKLAND: Primo, 2 S. Main St., pricey but fabulous; reservations go fast for the dining room but you can eat upstairs at the bar (try the bread and fish soup). Lily Bistro, 421 Main St., fresh local seafood and produce. Conte's, 148 S. Main St., a quirky place where newspapers serve as tablecloths but the seafood is fresh, good and reasonably priced.
GALLERIES: Rockland is home to a number of art galleries worth visiting, including Caldbeck, Eric Hopkins and Asymmetrick Arts.