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Inside Christina’s World

by Rebecca Chamberlain

 

By Rebecca Chamberlain

 

     When identifying the quintessential American realist painter, one need look no further than to the creator of the aloof New England inhabitants of a weather- worn coastal house captured in the portfolio of Andrew Wyeth.  Wyeth’s specific fascination with one elusive family, the Olsons of Maine, and more specifically of the disabled Olson woman, Christina, ignited a creative surge in him that manifested in a vast catalog of reflective studies, drawings, and paintings culminating in a haunting portrait that would seal a place of recognition for him among an American Art scene which embraced emerging styles in direct contrast with his own.

Early Life of an American Icon

     At 1:35 AM on July 12, 1917, American illustrator Newell Convers (NC) Wyeth and his wife Carol welcomed a son, Andrew Newell III into the world. He was the youngest of five children. From his birth, Andrew was “the prototype of the man he would eventually become”. His sister, Henrietta, declared that he had “the looks of a great composer or artist.”[1] This proclamation was echoed by NC when Andrew was merely eight months old. NC declared in writing that “I think he’s the most sensitive and spiritual little body I ever saw…Even as young as he is, the power of reflection in his eyes is astonishing,” [2]

     Henrietta would elaborate that this sensitivity her father referred to consumed the boy through-out his entire being. However, the younger Wyeth suffered from much more than acute sensitivity. He was plagued with anemia, double hernias, whooping cough, and a chronic sinus condition. His physical appearance was that of “skinny legs and knobby knees,” and as a result, he was given the nickname “Soup Bone.” The remaining Wyeth children had also fallen victim to various medical conditions which affected their father to the extent that he became their nurse and constant protector. [3]

     NC Wyeth became Andrew’s primary educator when, after enrolling Andrew briefly in the first grade at Chadds Ford public school, the long school days proved too strenuous for the hypersensitive boy and his physical and mental state deteriorated rapidly. NC then brought in a series of tutors who, due to Andrew’s precocious nature, often became frustrated with the task of educating the boy. In spite of what Andrew described as an isolated and sheltered childhood, he credited his father with creating a virtual Renaissance School filled with complete sets of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Tolstoy. [4]

     The young Wyeth came of age in 1930’s America which in terms of the art world was at the height of regionalism and the birth of Modernism with “abstract principles of structure and formal handling.” This new “modernism” was of course in direct opposition to the realism executed by Wyeth. [5]

       Andrew’s art education was conducted as well by his father. He began with drawing and shading basic geometric shapes and progressed to pencil drawings of male nudes then, with his father’s approval, eventually to oil painting. The elder Wyeth was often harsh with his critiques but Andrew credited the assessments with doing a great service to him in spite of years of a tempestuous and volatile relationship with his father. [6]

     Under NC’s guidance, Andrew developed and grew as an artist, garnering almost instant success with a sold-out premiere show in 1937 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. Yet, Andrew rebelled against NC’s preference for bold oil color and epic scale. He elected instead to explore tempera which he was first introduced to by Peter Hurd; a student of NC’s who would eventually become Andrew’s brother in law. [7]

 

The Olson House

     In July of 1939, when Andrew was twenty two years old, three significant elements traversed at once.  Andrew spent the summer months of that year in Maine where after a chance meeting with the patriarch of the James family, he met with the seventeen year old James daughter, Betsy, Wyeth’s future wife. Andrew and Betsy made an immediate connection and the young girl’s confidence and dignity resonated with Andrew’s mission to find real substance in life and to express that substance artistically. [8]

     Betsy, sensing a mutual deepening of affection between her and Andrew and a quest to see where the relationship might lead, invited Wyeth to the Olson House. In the house lived Christina and Alvaro Olson, two siblings and childhood friends of Betsy’s. In bringing Wyeth to the house, Betsy was subjecting him to a test of sorts, to see his reaction to the peculiar state of the house, which was filthy and reeked with pungent odors, as well as to see his reaction to the Olsons themselves. The siblings were both in their forties and had dedicated themselves to caring for one another. Alvaro, a former seaman, stayed close to home to care for his sister whose body was ravaged by a degenerative disorder which was never conclusively diagnosed. Her muscles had progressively deformed which caused a startling metamorphosis of her physical abilities as well as her appearance. Christina rejected the assistance of a wheelchair and used her arms to pull her body around the house and its surroundings. She managed many of the household duties while Alvaro attended to the maintenance of the house and to working the farm. [9]

     By introducing Andrew to the Olson House and its inhabitants, Wyeth had been tested not only for his attraction to Betsy James but also his “mindset on life” had been tested. Betsy wanted to see first if he would enter the house in spite of its horrific appearance and foul odor which permeated from its walls. She wanted to gauge his reaction and the reaction was immediate. He studied the structure of the house, collected his art supplies, and climbed to the roof of his station wagon where he sketched out a watercolor, thereby creating the first of the Olson House series which would be produced over three decades. He then entered the home and joined the new forceful trio of Betsy, the Olson House, and the lives of Christina and Alvaro. [10]


Alvaro and Christina

     After this meeting, the Olsons soon permitted Andrew access to their home, allowing him the freedom to visit and roam about as he pleased. Wyeth fervently examined every minute detail of the house. He documented his studies in a multitude of drawings depicting the house from every conceivable angle.  His diligent exploration of the dwelling led him to the largely vacant upper two floors of the house. From these “upper recesses”, Wyeth stumbled upon a room, which would one day become his studio. There, he was drawn to look out a wavy-paned glass window to witness the startling image of Christina, dragging her body across the field below on her way back to the house. The scene consumed Wyeth and inspired him to paint a tempera portrait of the stoic New England woman to forever record that memory. [11]

 

Christina’s World

     Though Wyeth’s technique is realistic, his paintings are not bound to the truth of what he witnessed. His landscapes have sometimes been altered from the actual image and he sometimes omitted objects to create a more pleasing composition. In spite of this or perhaps as a result of, there seems to be a specter of what was once there remaining in many of his works. This was the case, in reference to the image that Wyeth saw from the third floor window of the Olson house, which was not what he painted. He recreated the scene in his mind and took his viewpoint out of the house and placed it behind Christina’s body, suspended slightly above her. [12]

     Wyeth spent the summer of 1948, nine years after his initial meeting with the Olsons, in the upstairs studio room of the Olson House painting Christina’s World. He worked on the picture every day for weeks from eight o’clock in the morning until five-thirty in the evening. [13]

   He imagined the sloping terrain as an insurmountable expanse of land with a vastness nearly reaching the top of the canvas, permitting only a narrow band of pale sky to extend across the horizon. At the top sits the Olson House and two buildings void of any surrounding trees which in reality encased the property. By omitting the trees, the house stands out as the only destination for Christina’s arduous journey and her only solitude. [14]

     The entire scene of Christina’s World was painted prior to the placement of Christina’s figure in the composition, Wyeth elaborated, “I kept thinking about the day I would paint Christina in her pink dress, like a faded lobster shell I might find on a beach, crumpled. I kept building her in my mind-a living being there on a hill whose grass was really growing. Someday she was going to be buried under it.” [15]

     Christina’s figure in the painting was inspired by the 220 B.C. Statue of Capitoline Gaul by Epigonus. Wyeth redefined the dignified suffering known as pathos which is exemplified in the Statue of Capitoline Gaul. He substituted the muscular wounded soldier found in the ancient statue with the figure of a disabled woman. It became a composite of the real and the imagined or remembered. The gnarled arms and hands were taken from studies of Christina’s limbs yet “the languid body was that of Betsy’s; the dress was from Christina’s closet; the shoe found in one of the Wyeth houses; and the windswept hair is the memory of his aunt’s locks.” [16]

     Wyeth had a deep admiration for Christina’s determination and enduring nature. He admired her and as a result of his own unhealthy and isolated childhood, shared a commonality with her. Her respect and approval mattered deeply to him and he was

worried by what her reaction to the portrait might be. He did not know if she was aware of what he was doing until he noticed that in the studio his chair had been moved and he discovered a trail of dust on the floor which exposed that something had dragged itself along across the steps. “The floor was polished slightly. She knew what I was doing, all right, and never said anything.” [17]

     Andrew kept the picture from Betsy until just before its completion in September when she christened it Christina’s World. She was inspired by an oil painting by a friend to the couple, Stephen Etnier, titled Stephanie’s Ocean. The painting showed a young girl manipulating a model sailboat in a pool. [18]

     The painting of Christina was placed over the sofa in the Wyeth’s home and a few weeks later Christina and Alvaro were invited to dinner and to view the painting. It was ignored throughout the dinner until Andrew and Christina were left alone. The artist then asked his model what she thought of the painting and she only raised her fingers to her mouth in a hushing motion. The painting would be one of many that Wyeth would paint of his friend and would remain her favorite. [19]

     Christina’s World went largely unnoticed when it remained in the Wyeth home and was eventually shipped to the Macbeth Gallery where Wyeth made his celebrated artistic debut. Because of the lack of response to the painting, Andrew became deeply depressed and viewed the work as a complete failure, labeling it “a flat tire.” However, the response from the gallery manager resulted in a seemingly infinite procession of the greatest art experts in America to see the painting.  At the end of December 1948, The Museum of Modern Art hung the painting in the show titled American Paintings from the Museum Collection. It has since become one of the most famous paintings in the Museum’s History. [20]

Conclusion

     Christina’s World became much more than the portrait of a disabled woman endeavoring to reach her deteriorating house. It was perhaps a mirror to Andrew Wyeth’s soul as well as to our own. We identify with the struggle of the woman to reach her destination no matter how impossible the task appears to be. The space on Wyeth’s canvas has become a portal to a place that gives refuge to our intimate thoughts and to the concepts which form our own identities and individuality. Within the weathered austere world of the Olsons, Andrew Wyeth’s immersion into their lives led him to discover his artistic vision, and with one unforgettable image he gained acknowledgment in the midst of an art world which had embraced modernism and abstraction over Wyeth’s dreamy realism. 

Bibliography

 

Merman, Richard. Andrew With: A Secret Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

 

Wyeth, Betsy James. Christina’s World: Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,

1982.

 

Criswell, Amber Lucero-. A House for Dreams to be Made. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 2007.

 

Wyeth, Andrew. Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.

 

Stevens, Martha R and Ken Wilber Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life  New York: Hudson Hills Press Inc., 1996.

 

End Notes:

[1] Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. ( New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 30.

[2] Meryman, 31.

[3] Meryman, 32.

[4] Meryman, 46.

[5] Martha R Stevens and Ken Wilber, Andrew Wyeth: America’s Painter. (New York: Hudson Hills Press Inc., 1996), 12.

[6] Meryman, 102.

[7] Stevens, 12.

[8] Amber Lucero-Criswell, A House for Dreams to be Made. (Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum. 2007), 5.

[9] Stevens, 12.

[10] Criswell, 10.

[11] Betsy James-Wyeth, Christina’s World. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982), 97.

[12] Criswell, 12.

[13] Andrew Wyeth, Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), 122.

[14] Criswell, 12.

[15] Meryman, 15.

[16] Criswell, 15.

[17] James-Wyeth, 122.

[18] Meryman, 21.

[19] Wyeth, 129.

[20] Meryman, 20.