The Controversial Story behind Andrew Wyeth’s Most Famous Painting

Zachary Small
Aug 31, 2017 9:08PM

Photographer Alex Thompson’s tribute to Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948), taken in 2005 at the site of the Olsons’ house in South Cushing, Maine. Photo via Flickr.

Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World (1948) is a modern masterpiece. Or is it totally trite? Almost 70 years after its creation (and a century after Wyeth’s birth, in Pennsylvania), critics and viewers alike remain at a standstill, unsure of where to place Wyeth among the post-war pantheon of Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists, and Minimalists.

Why is it that Christina’s World evokes such strong feelings of nostalgia and disdain? Admittedly, the painting is somewhat kitschy. It presumes the viewer has a connection with the American pastoral—something already enshrined into the works of the 19th-century Hudson River School painters and their second-generation progenies, the Luminists.

Wyeth portrays the countryside as an escape, an arcadia. Viewers may notice the pinpoint details of Wyeth’s style, how he meticulously paints each blade of grass, hyper-focusing every detail—even the farm on the horizon. Christina leans toward her farmhouse. She longs to be home again; she wants us to come with her.

We should not, however, ignore the more haunting aspects of Wyeth’s painting. Because we don’t see Christina’s face, we instead focus on the details of her body. We see grayed fingers, disheveled hair, a pink dress, and plain shoes. Questions may dog the viewer. Who is Christina? Why is she on the ground? Who or what is she looking for in the distance? Elements of mystery and intrigue might compel the viewer to look closer.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the historical and ethical contexts of Christina’s World betrays the painting’s initial delights. Wyeth was an idiosyncratic artist whose seven decades of work focus mainly on two families in two locations: the Kuerners in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and the Olsons in South Cushing, Maine. The subject of Christina’s World is Anna Christina Olson. She was one of the painter’s muses, appearing in several other artworks. Olson lived on her family farm in South Cushing, Maine, near Wyeth’s vacation home.

Although neurologists initially thought Olson had polio, they now believe she suffered from Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, which causes weakness in the feet and lower leg muscles. CMT also hampers coordination of the fingers, hands, wrists, and tongue. As a result, Olson was handicapped from the waist down; she often moved across her family property by crawling. And as legend has it, Wyeth found inspiration for Christina’s World one afternoon when he observed Olson dragging her body across the field.

Justifying why he chose to paint Olson, Wyeth once stated that he wanted “to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out do.”

It’s an admirable goal, but one that Wyeth never wholly delivered. Christina’s World does not only depict Olson, but also the artist’s young wife, Betsy. In her twenties, she was Olson’s junior by nearly 30 years, and someone who Wyeth had ready access to for his painstaking modeling and sketching routines. He used his wife as a model for the figure’s head and torso.

The subtext of this switcheroo is malignant. Did Wyeth replace parts of Olson with Betsy for beauty’s sake? And can we assume the artist never asked Olson for consent to paint her disability? Is that okay?

Today, I would argue that Wyeth skirted his self-professed goal for Christina’s World by compromising the striking realism of his painting in favor of a younger model. But nothing is ever so simple when it comes to this story. Reportedly, Olson loved the painting. “Andy put me where he knew I wanted to be,” she said. “Now that I can’t be there anymore, all I do is think of that picture and I’m there.”

In fact, Olson and Wyeth maintained an extremely close relationship throughout their lifetimes. One year before he died, Wyeth told the L.A. Times that he wanted to be buried with Olson. “I want to be with Christina,” he said.

As in Christina’s World, Wyeth’s sentimentality obscures the more unsettling truth. Shortly after the Museum of Modern Art bought the artist’s painting, Wyeth became a successful painter. (Not that critics loved him; they hated him. They admired the surrealist tones found in some of his early work, but harshly denounced the kitschy nostalgia of paintings like Christina’s World, which ignored major historical and aesthetic events like World War II and Abstract Expressionism, respectively.)

Regardless, Wyeth became a wealthy artist. Though he reportedly offered the Olson family gifts, Christina ardently refused any money. So while he indirectly profited from the struggles of a disabled person, his subject never saw any of that wealth. The family continued to live in their decrepit farmhouse.

It’s hard for these historical footnotes not to influence one’s appreciation of Christina’s World. I still enjoy the painting’s formal qualities—its muted palette and wonky, curling perspective—but it’s difficult to understand an artist whose grasp on a rapidly changing world was so willfully small, and whose ethics so hazy.

Zachary Small