Paul Caponigro's photo of Olson House in Cushing, Maine.

photo by: Paul Caponigro

July 11, 2017

Andrew Wyeth's Portrait of American Life

  • By: Carson Bear

When he arrived in 1939, Andrew Wyeth completed his first watercolor of the Olson House from the hood of his car. The modest, 19th-century saltwater farm—a Maine-exclusive term for a farm often dredged in seawater—in Cushing, Maine, became a mainstay for many of Wyeth’s paintings and drawings. Most famously, “Christina’s World” depicts Christina Olson crawling towards the Olson House in a pink dress.

The Olson House was sparsely decorated and unassuming, and its inhabitants—brother and sister Christina and Alvaro Olson—were farmers living on the fringes of 20th-century American society. Andrew Wyeth, whose work primarily focused on the hardships of life in rural America, developed a close relationship with the Olsons and spent 30 summers painting and drawing the Olson House, Christina, and Alvaro.

Christina and Alvaro inherited the Olson House, originally built in the late 18th century by Captain Samuel Hawthorn II, in 1929. Christina suffered from a disability that resulted in the loss of the use of her legs. Alvaro, once a fisherman, became a farmer so he could stay closer to his sister and help her around the home. Despite her disability, Christina preferred to crawl through the farm without mobility aids like a cane or wheelchair, inspiring Wyeth to paint “Christina’s World” from her vantage point in the field.

Andrew Wyeth was a popular but controversial realist who stood in stark contrast to modernism, pop art, and other experimental artistic movements of the 20th century. Rather than focusing on urban life and abstract themes, Wyeth’s works centered rural narratives of life in Maine, Pennsylvania, and New England. Many critics have long accused Wyeth of sentimentalism, while others argue that his pieces instead portray subtle drama, intensity, and a strong emotional component lurking beneath the surface.

Andrew Wyeth's "Dr. Syn," 1981. Tempura on panel.

photo by: Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society

Andrew Wyeth's "Dr. Syn," 1981. Tempura on panel.

Andrew Wyeth's "Far from Needham Study," 1966. Pencil on paper.

photo by: Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society

Andrew Wyeth's "Far from Needham," 1966. Pencil on paper.

After Alvaro and Christina’s passing in 1967 and 1968, respectively, Wyeth attended their funerals and completed four more paintings before closing the page on his time at the Olson House. The farm changed hands twice until 1991 when it was purchased by the Farnsworth Art Museum.

The Olson House reopened as a historic house museum in 1992, and the Farnsworth Art Museum deliberately removed most of the home’s furnishings to retain its significance as a traditional, 19th-century saltwater farm. The kitchen’s original wood stove and a lone egg crock feature prominently in the home, both of which were subjects in individual paintings. Photographic reproductions of Wyeth’s work completed during his time at Olson House line its walls, and visitors often feel that wandering through the home is like walking through one of Wyeth’s paintings.

Photo by Tillman Crane, "Christina's Crib, Olson House, Cushing, Maine."

photo by: Tillman Crane

Photo by Tillman Crane, "Christina's Crib, Olson House, Cushing, Maine."

Photo by Peter Ralston, "Olson's." Cushing, Maine.

photo by: Peter Ralston

Photo by Peter Ralston, "Olson's." Cushing, Maine.

In celebration of Andrew Wyeth’s 100th birthday, the Farnsworth Art Museum has opened five additional exhibits featuring 100 works to celebrate the artist’s wide portfolio. The exhibits showcase many of his famous tempura paintings, as well as lesser-known drawings and watercolors that depict his work in Maine. Additionally, photos of the Olson House from contemporary artists—inspired by “Christina’s World” and other Wyeth paintings—feature in their own exhibition that celebrates a remnant of America’s past.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Assistant at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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