Christina’s World

20 Jul 2010 by Fausto Sicha, No Comments »

By: Fausto Sicha

The City College of New York

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          Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting entitled “Christina’s World” is considered one of the “four most indelible images” in American art history.[1] The painting is tempera on panel, and it is 32 ¼ x 47 ¾ (81.9 x 121.3 cm.) in size. The painting depicts Christina Olson, who lived on the Olson farm in Maine. The farm and houses in the painting were part of the Olson property. Andrew Wyeth is considered one of the greatest artists in American art history, and “Christina’s World” is his most well-known painting.

          Andrew Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1917. As a child, Wyeth suffered from various health problems, and because of this he was tutored at home rather than being sent to school. His father was the great artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. N.C. Wyeth was known as a master draftsman, who was particularly gifted at drawing the human form. From the time they were born, N.C. Wyeth taught all of his children how to draw. N.C. Wyeth had learned a great deal of his own craft from another great American illustrator, Howard Pyle. Howard Pyle was considered one of the country’s greatest illustrators and also “the most important American teacher of that art.”[2] Pyle’s style greatly influenced both N.C. Wyeth and his son Andrew Wyeth. N.C. Wyeth was famous for illustrating classic books such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, and Last of the Mohicans.[3] N. C. Wyeth took his son Andrew as his apprentice when he was only fifteen years of age.[4] N.C. Wyeth had unique ideas about painting. He felt that to really paint a subject, the artist needed to know the subject “even more than intimately, he has got to know it spiritually.” For this reason, Wyeth would spend a great deal of time with his subjects, getting to know them well.[5] Andrew Wyeth was such a good student that he was able to have his first show at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia when he was only nineteen years old. He had his first one-man show of watercolors when he was twenty.[6]

          Andrew Wyeth belonged to the school of realism,[7] he was also an American regionalist, and so were Edward Hopper and N C Wyeth. A realistic painter can paint a subject so clearly that it almost seems like a photograph. In “Christina’s World” we can make out individual strands of hair on Christina’s head, and see individual blades of grass. However, from his father N.C. Wyeth, and also from Howard Pyle, Andrew Wyeth learned the importance of creating drama along with realism. Howard Pyle taught his students “composition, drawing and painting techniques,” but he also “constantly emphasized drama and emotional content.”[8] Both Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth were able to create realistic drawings that were filled with drama and energy and emotion. These gifts were learned by Andrew Wyeth. Because of the lessons learned from his father, Andrew Wyeth’s style of realism is considered by some to be a “magic realism, prompted by dreams and the imagination rather than observed reality.”[9] Other artists whose work influenced Andrew Wyeth include the German artist Albrecht Durer, and American artists Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.[10] Another artist whose work is sometimes compared to Wyeth is Edward Hopper, another American realist. Hopper’s work shares some themes with Wyeth’s, including “consciousness of the psychological beneath the surface of things; a concentration on architectural fragments and an association of structures with personalities; a brooding emptiness in the landscape… and a vision attuned to modern loneliness and alienation.”[11]

          “Christina’s World” is a long rectangular painting. There is a large area of grass in the foreground, with a woman in the grass. In the middle ground is a prairie and partially plowed field. In the background there is one house near the middle of the horizon, and another house with outbuildings toward the right. These houses are set against a cloudless sky. The woman in the foreground is wearing a pink dress, and is lying on the ground, her upper body twisted in the direction of the house. Her arms and legs are skinny and her hair is messy. She looks as though she may be about to crawl toward the house.

          The grass of the foreground is painted in such sharp detail that individual blades of grass can be clearly seen. Similarly, individual strands of Christina’s hair are clearly painted. This realism is carried throughout the painting. In the background, the weathered boards of the old farmhouse are shown in sharp detail, and places where the roof is weathered on the house can be clearly seen as well. The figure of the woman in the grass is twisted in an uncomfortable way. She does not seem to be resting in the grass, but trying to move toward the house. There is a sense of pain and struggle in the figure of the woman. “Struggle and hope mix with malevolence. It is a disturbing picture, romantic at first glance, ultimately eerie.”[12]

          The formal qualities of “Christina’s World” give it this romantic eerie quality. The use of space and composition is important. There is a vast space between Christina in the foreground and the houses in the background. The figure of Christina looks lonely and helpless in the foreground, and the great distance between her and the house give the painting a feeling of longing. If this woman is going to attempt to crawl the great distance to the house, the viewer can sense a great deal of struggle and suffering. A large amount of the space in the painting consists of the vast area of grass around Christina, adding to the sense of her loneliness and isolation. The colors in the painting are muted and somber, creating a feeling of sadness. The sky seems grey and drab. The grass is green but with a brownish tinge to it. Even Christina’s dress is drab although it is pink in color. Andrew Wyeth said that when he was planning the painting, “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.”[13] The muted colors help to suggest the damaged, fragile quality of Christina. The houses in the background seem dark and somewhat menacing. Although the house to the right of the background seems to be where Christina is struggling to go, the dark color makes the house seem slightly threatening.

          Andrew Wyeth rented a studio in the Maine farmhouse depicted in the painting Christina’s World. The farm was owned by the Olson family. The members of this family were longtime friends of Andrew’s wife Betsy. One member of this family was Christina. Christina was crippled due to polio. Christina refused to use crutches or a wheelchair; instead, she would drag herself from place to place.[14] In spite of her condition, she refused to stay still and be a victim. She did all the cooking on the farm, and also worked as a seamstress and did gardening on the farm. Christina was a huge inspiration to Andrew Wyeth during the time that he knew her. Over time, they developed a unique friendship. Andrew Wyeth said of his friendship with Christina, “There was a very strange connection. One of those odd collisions that happen. We were a little alike; I was an unhealthy child that was kept at home. So there was an unsaid feeling between us that was wonderful, an utter naturalness.”[15] At the time that Wyeth painted “Christina’s World,” he said that he was feeling a great deal of rage. The rage he was feeling grew out of the fact that his wife had bought a new house and was busy fixing it up. Wyeth felt that having this house would keep him trapped, and he would no longer be free to travel whenever he wanted to. This rage was put into “Christina’s World.” We can see the feeling of powerlessness and rage in Christina’s twisted body as it tries to move through the grass. Christina can obviously not go wherever she wants to go. This was the feeling that Wyeth himself was feeling at that time. The purchase of the house made him feel trapped and crippled. The houses that Christina is crawling toward may also represent the rage inside of Wyeth at that time. A house can be a symbol of wealth or safety, something people long for. But it may also be a place where people feel trapped[16] Although Wyeth himself said that he was expressing his rage in this painting, he was also expressing his admiration for the power and strength he saw in Christina Olson. She did not let her disability stop her from living her life. This sense of power in the face of adversity is also one of the things that make this painting so iconographic. Painter Bo Bartlett has expressed his admiration for Wyeth’s work. Bartlett said of Wyeth that “when he draws or paints he takes care in his representation of the subject, but he is most concerned with expressing his praise for what it is to be alive… His paintings glorify existence and unfold the mysteries of being alive.”[17]

          Although “Christina’s World” is Wyeth’s most famous painting of Christine, he did paint others using her as model, including Christina Olson, 1947, Miss Olson, 1952, Anna Christina 1967 and others. He also painted Christine’s brother Alvaro (Oil Lamp, 1945). In fact, Wyeth had first chosen Alvaro as a model, but found him to be uncooperative. He was surprised to find that Christina was very easy to talk to, and a very cooperative model. In addition to his paintings of Christina and Alvaro, Wyeth also painted other pictures using the farm, including Wind from the Sea (1947).[18] Wyeth considered Christine a real friend, and spent hours talking to her. He found her to be a fascinating person, even though her life was so limited.[19]

         “Christina’s World” by Wyeth is considered one of the “four most indelible images” in American art history.[20] When Wyeth completed the painting in 1948, he felt that it was better than any work he had done up to that point. In the same year, the painting was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, taking Wyeth’s career to a whole new level.[21]

“Christina’s World” is an interesting mixture of realism and imagination, two of the most outstanding qualities for which Wyeth is known. Although there is a photographic realism to the painting, many elements are taken from Andrew Wyeth’s own imagination. Wyeth changed the distance between the buildings in the background and created a slope to the hill in front of the house. In fact, Wyeth’s wife Betsy helped pose for the figure of Christine. One reason that imagination plays such a part in Wyeth’s work is that he learned from his father N. C. Wyeth that to really paint a subject, the artist must become one with that subject. Of his painting “Christina’s World,” Wyeth said “I felt the loneliness of that figure – perhaps the same that I felt myself as a kid. It was as much my experience as hers.”[22] The power of feeling that Wyeth was able to put into his paintings also makes it possible for viewers to feel the same feelings within themselves while looking at the work. This is perhaps what has made Andrew Wyeth one of the most influential painters in American art history.

ILLUSTRATIONS:

CHRISTINA’S WORLD 1948

CHRISTINA OLSON 1947

MISS OLSON 1952

ANNA CHRISTINA 1967

OIL LAMP 1945

WIND FROM THE SEA 1947


[1] Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) 6.

[2] James H. Duff An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art ( New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1987) 6.

[3] Wanda M. Corn, The Art of Andrew Wyeth ( Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1973) 118.

[4] Andrew Wyeth, Autobiography (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995) 155.

[5] Corn,126.

[6] Andreew Wyeth (New York: Abercrombie & Fitch, 1966) 11.

[7] Anne Classen Knutson, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (New York: Rizzoli, 2005) 47.

[8] An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art ( New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1987) 9.

[9] Classen.

[10] Classen, 17.

[11] Classen, 19.

[12] Meryman.

[13] Meryman, 15.

[14] “Christina Olson,” Whose World Wyeth Immortalized, Dies at 74,” The New York Times January 29, 1968: 31.

[15]  Meryman, 13.

[16]  Meryman, 5.

[17] Stephen Doherty, “Being in the Moment,” Watercolor, Fall 2006: 87.

[18] Andrew Wyeth, 1938-1966 (New York: Abercrombie & Fitch Co., 1966) 28.

[19] Katharine S. Gilbert, Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976) 117.

[20] Meryman, 6.

[21] Classen 59.

[22] Ibid.

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