The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.—Andrew Wyeth1
Seventeen-year-old Betsy James just wanted to see if her new acquaintance, 22-year-old Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), would go inside the 16-room farmhouse in Cushing, Maine, to meet her adult friend Christina Olson. Many wouldn’t, she said, because of the smell and the odors2(p144)that were magnified by the heat on that hot summer's day in July 1939. Christina (1893-1969) had been physically handicapped since childhood, and it was difficult for her to keep the farmhouse clean. Betsy tended to ignore her disability and enjoyed being with her, picking flowers in her garden, and listening to Christina's stories about her ancestor John Hathorn, who presided as chief judge at the Salem witch trials.3Wyeth, Betsy's future husband, passed her litmus test that day; he did go in.3Soon afterwards Wyeth was a fixture in the Olson home, establishing a studio on the upper floor and painting Christina's Worldthere; Betsy proposed the title. Despite its popularity, the details of Christina Olson's life and the emotional significance of the painting for Wyeth are not well known.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), American. Christina's World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel, 32¼ × 47¾ in. Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York, NY. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2009 Andrew Wyeth.
Christina's movement disorder was apparent by age 3 years. A resourceful child, she made a game out of trying to keep her balance, laughing when she fell.4When she walked, it was on the outer edges of the soles of her feet, yet despite this, she was able to walk 1½ miles to elementary school. She refused medical evaluation, insisting that, although she was lame, she was not crippled. Finally in her mid 20s, in 1919, she consented to a 1-week inpatient evaluation at Boston City Hospital.4By that time, she could take only 3 or 4 steps before reaching for support. In her letters home, she joked about the doctors and their 2-minute rounds, particularly “the old big bug,”3(p40)the nerve specialist who was nearsighted and could hardly walk himself. In a way, Christina felt vindicated when no specific diagnosis was made and the doctors told her to continue to spend time out of doors and to cope exactly as she had before admission. Her diagnosis remains unclear; poliomyelitis has been proposed, but her medical history is not consistent with this diagnosis. Her course is consistent with an hereditary motor sensory neuropathy, possibly Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease,5a genetic disorder of peripheral nerve axons or the myelin sheath. If so, it involved a spontaneous mutation or a recessive mode of inheritance because there is no family history.
The impulse to paint Christina's Worldcame to Wyeth spontaneously. One day in May 1948, looking down from a narrow third-floor window in the house, he saw her dragging herself across the grass field. Now in her 50s, she was crawling back from the family burial plot, no longer able to stand or walk unsupported. For Wyeth, the image of her in that field “crawling like a crab over the New England shore”2(p7)was indelible; it stayed with him as he traveled home, rowing his dory up the river. That sight so preoccupied him that, in the middle of dinner with his wife and in-laws, he suddenly stopped eating. To their surprise, he put down his fork and just walked away. Exiting the house to the bedroom, he sketched Christina’s world.
Wyeth began with the house, barn, tire tracks, and field. He chose his perspective as looking up from the family burial plot. Christina was painted last; she is wearing a pink dress she had made and worn to her favorite nephew's wedding. After Christina posed for Wyeth on the grass, he fully realized the extent of her physical disability. Not wanting to emphasize it, Wyeth included only her thin arms and gnarled hands to reflect the disability. He drew her figure to reflect her “inner youthfulness,”4(p20)using the slender torso of 26-year-old Betsy as his model. The bundled brown hair with strands disrupted by the wind is his aunt Elizabeth’s.
The painting betrays an emotional uncertainty and loneliness that may have had an unacknowledged deeper emotional significance for Wyeth. He said that the loneliness in it was as much his as hers.4His father, N. C. Wyeth, and 3-year-old nephew, Newell, his father's namesake, were abruptly killed 3 years before. The elder Wyeth's station wagon stopped or stalled in the middle of a train track near his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The train engineer desperately sounded his horn, but the car did not move and was hit on the driver's side. N. C. Wyeth, the leading magazine and book illustrator of his generation, was dead. The year after his father’s death, Wyeth's painting Winter, 1946reflected his loss. It was inspired by seeing Allan Lynch, the young man who had protected his father's body from dogs until help could come after the accident, running down a hill near where his father died. Wyeth said Winter, 1946illustrated his feeling of disconnectedness. “It was me, at a loss—that hand drifting in the air was my free soul—groping.”6(p58)When this painting is placed next to Christina's World, the viewer notes striking similarities in the portrayals of the horizon line, hillside, and tire tracks, possibly reminiscent of the railroad track where his father died. Touchingly Wyeth chose to portray Christina near the place where she regularly tended to her parents' graves, as though she is waiting to greet the distraught young man running down the hill to assist him in his mourning.
When the painting was finished, the Wyeths placed it on the wall over the sofa in their home and invited Christina and her brother to visit. Brother Alvaro, who lived with her in the farmhouse, carried Christina into the Wyeths’ home, and Betsy set up a dinner table facing the painting for Christina's viewing. Wyeth was wary about her response and asked how she liked it. She looked at him, apparently with warmth, and then with her gnarled hand lifted his fingers to her lips in appreciation.4
R Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. New York, NY Harper Collins1996;
BJ Christina's World. Boston, MA Houghton Mifflin Co1982;
D Christina Olson: Her World Beyond the Canvas. Camden, ME Down East Books1998;
RJ Christina's World: American icon and medical enigma. Pharos
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AC Andrew Wyeth's language of things. Klausen
AC Andrew Wyeth Magic and Memory.
New York, NY Rizzolli International Publications Inc2005;Google Scholar