Rediscovering Christina's World

on Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

I do very well in quizzes and in games like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and Trivial Pursuit. That's because I have a lot of general, trivial and useless information in my head. I am trying to say that I have quite a good general knowledge. However, there are two categories where I am weak in and are my archilles' heel in such general knowledge quizzes. These two areas are "current politics" and "art".

I generally have a loathing of politicians so someone has to be extraordinarily good or unfortunately, extraordinarily bad for me to register him/her in my mind. Hence, I don't know the names of most current politicians.

With art, I do know a bit but that's been what I've picked up for myself over the years on rare exposure to treasure houses of arts like the British Museum or the Kuntahistorische in Vienna. In the famous words of a celebrity from American Idol; "I've had no formal training." Nevertheless, I know some of the famous names and understand the difference between impressionism and surrealism. (Although I still don't understand the difference between some Modern Art and an accident).

So, I think we have established that when it comes to art, I don't know much. However, I know what I like. I like Monet, Renoir, Klimt, and Dali. I also know that I don't share the fascination most of the world has over Mona Lisa's smile.

There was one painting that I remembered seeing and I can't remember where or when but whenever my mind turns to art, I see it in my mind's eye. Somehow this picture made an impression on my soul. The frustrating thing was I knew nothing about this picture. So yesterday, I went and got the help of an expert, Josie. I told her about the key elements of the painting and presto, hole in one, she got the right one on the first try.

So, I finally know that this painting that haunts me is called "Christina's World" and is by Andrew Wyeth. It seems Mr. Wyeth is a famous painter and this painting is considered one of the icons of modern American painting. I did not know all this before. I did a lot of researching and I found out all the following wonderful facts (although I suspect it may be old news for many readers).

This was Mr. Wyeth's first commercially successful painting and sold for just USD 1,800. It was painted in 1948. The girl in the painting was a neighbour and a friend of his wife. Her name is Christina Olson (born May 3, 1893 and died January 27, 1968). I have often wondered about the unique composition of the painting with the twisted torso of the woman and the deliberate emphasis of distance to the houses. I have also wondered at the frail limbs and since the face is not seen in the painting, whether it was a girl or a woman and whether she was smiling, crying or distressed. I guess I like this picture cause it made me wonder what the story was all about.

It seems that Christina was suffering from some progressive muscular degenerative disease. A precise diagnosis was never made and it could have been a number of inheritable degenerative diseases or polio which was very common then. At the time of the painting, Christina was in her 50's. She had almost no strength in her legs but refused to use a wheelchair and prefered to crawl all over the house and farm. She was by all accounts a very capable woman who did her utmost to not allow her disability hinder her from a full and as normal a life as possible.

When Andrew Wyeth painted this painting, Christina was actually making her way down the hill to visit her parent's grave. The farm, barn and house is still there today and can be seen if you visit Cushing, Maine.

The other interesting thing is that this painting was done using the Tempera method in which pigments were mixed with egg contents to create a better binding agent.

Well, I don't know how many years the un-named painting haunted me and had me wondering. I am so glad to be finally formally introduced to it and the story of the painting and its subject does not disappoint.


Janice Thomson said...

It is indeed a beautiful painting Lgs and one I too admire greatly. For me it is the underlying hint of pathos that catches the eye. For those not familiar with the story one immediately gets the sense of some kind of struggle depicted so evocatively in the lines and placement of the body itself. One doesn't need to see the face in order to understand and have compassion for the struggle no matter what interpretation comes to mind. Coupled with buildings bare of any foliage the painting also strikes that sense of loneliness hidden deep inside all of us. It is such a simple painting yet holds volumes of poignancy.

I am glad you have shown it here in this post Lgs. Kudos to Josie for knowing exactly which one it was.

Anonymous said...

To my eternal shame I have to confess that I did not know the name of the painter nor knew the picture.

An impressive painting - I first thought of her as crawling, as a kind of victim. After having read your text I can see her as a strong person that choose to be independent - total opposite to being a victim.
The artist must have had a tough time when painting realistic and (it's not derogatory!) craftsman-like in the 1950ties. Wasn't it all dripping pollocks and lines and monochrome colours?

Josie said...

LGS, what fabulous research you did! I didn't know any of these things about the painting. I always thought it was just a young woman relaxing on a warm afternoon, and that something, a noise, had caught her eye and she turned to look at it. I can feel the warm of the afternoon sun in the painting. I didn't know any of the rest of it. I do get the feeling of loneliness from the painting.

Thank you. You are quite a good docent, and if you ever get tired of your present vocation, you know what your other calling is.


Anonymous said...

It's always satisfying to have an answer to a riddle that naws.


meggie said...

That is so interesting. I had only just seen this painting on a blog, with reference to the area it was painted. Excellent to read the story.

Dr.John said...

I don't know much about art but I try to appreciate all that I see. Soemtimes as you say it is hard to tell the differnce between art and an accident. This picture has very unioque qualities and does ellicet a response.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

"evocative","loeliness", "poignancy".....exactly how it makes me feel. There was a sense of "someone help her....there's a storm coming."

Well, mago,
You and I both! I didn't know anything about it until i got Josie's help. I too am embarassed to learn that it is a famous painting and I knew so little about it. I too felt that the woman was in some knd of trouble or emergency but both interpretations are powerful.

You're shiny personality again glows. Hence, you saw the picture in context of a sunny day whereas I saw a storm coming. Thanks again for your help. What's a docent? Does it pay well? Haha.

sometimes the mystery is the great part. in this case, uncovering the mystery was equally wonderful.

Glad you like it. Thanks for sharing the wonder with me.

Dr. John,
Our attitude to art are not dissimilar. I don't know how to argue or discuss about technique and brush strokes but I appreciate art that ellicits a response from our emotions.

squirrel said...

I always wondered why she looked so desperate. Thanks for the story on the painting!

patterns of ink said...

Whenever I read here, I am amazed at how much we have in common. This is one of my favorite paintings. I saw it on display in a Museum of Art in the 70's and have a print of it. You've got the story right. Great post.

Josie said...

LGS, A docent is a guide in an art gallery. They are able to explain the painting, what the artist was thinking, what the subject matter is, the history, etc. Often art galleries and museum hire docents to take people through the exhibits so folks aren't just "looking" at a painting, but they're really learning about it and understanding it. It's a good thing to be, and you would make a good one.


thethinker said...

When it comes to art, I'm completely ignorant. The only exceptions are pieces of art that are extremely popular (i.e. the Mona Lisa).

Very nice painting. It kind of makes me wish I paid a little more attention to art.

evalinn said...

I´m not good with art either. I gues I´m not that much of a picture person, I´m better with words.

geewits said...

When I read your question to Josie, I knew what you were talking about after about 3 words, but I knew she would also know. What's weird to me about this painting is my second husband's parents had a very large framed print of this in THEIR BATHROOM. So now when I see it I always think about their bathroom.

...Kat said...

Three GENERATIONS of great artists in that family...I grew up reading books illustrated by the father....

and of course I HAD TO go see the recent exhibit at the High Museum here of the son's great masterpieces....Andrew Wyeth...Memory and Magic.
I have the exhibit book here in my hands at this moment.... so evocative and moving

Night Sleeper
Day Dream
Wind from the Sea

To see them in person....incredible

daysgoby said...

Well-done, LG! I have to admit the few times I've seen this picture I didn't 'get it' - I liked it well enough, but it just seemed as though she was looking back for someone who had called her name. Hearing about her disability definately put some grit into the portrait.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I can see how this painting would have haunted you.
The pose, the field and the distant farmhouse all capture the eye.
Very nice, thanks for the art lesson.:)

Ruth said...

thank you LGS for doing the research on this masterpiece. I was familiar with the painting, but did not know the story behind it.

Odat said...

Wow. That is an intriguing painting. I've not seen it but I will remember it now. Thanks for sharing that story.

The Mann's... said...

he he, I love your line about not understanding the difference between modern art and an accident. We have a yearly national contemporary art award here at the Waikato Museum - one does have to wonder at some of the entries. Past winners have included a series of beer crates on the floor!

The Mann's... said...

he he, I love your line about not understanding the difference between modern art and an accident. We have a yearly national contemporary art award here at the Waikato Museum - one does have to wonder at some of the entries. Past winners have included a series of beer crates on the floor!

Cheryl said...

I enjoyed reading the background information on this painting. I've seen it at the Andrew Wyeth museum in Pennsylvania. You would probably enjoy his other works. I believe he had two siblings who were also artists. Thanks for a great posting. BTW, I'm just terrible at trivia.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I also sensed the desperation but wondered what it could have been.

Are you my lost twin brother? Stranger things have happened! :)

You see, we don't have docents in Malaysia. I think, that would be a wonderful thing to do when I am retired or put out to pasture.

Never too late to start an interest in arts and you are just at the beginning of your journey. make it a rich one.

Look forward to reading more of your words.

I've just come from reading your latest post, you little "closet artist" (literally) you!

Now that I have been formally introduced to Andrew Wyeth, I plan to learn much much more about him and his paintings. Already, I am discovering his Helga portraits.

I was always disturbed by the painting; the way the subject was portrayed, the deviation from the one-thirds rule and the darkening sky. The story did not disappoint the anticipation.

happy to share. May it haunt you as it has me.

Thanks for joining me on my re-discovery of theis painting and of this artist.

Thanks. The story does not disappoint.

the mann's,
I do like some modern art forms but others only provoke arguement on how silly it was to spend so much for it.

Glad you found the background info interesting.

Lisa said...

I live right outside Chadds Ford, where the Wyeths have their primary residence. My husband really likes Andrew's work, I prefer Andrew's father's work, N.C. Wyeth.

I don't know if you'd be interested, but there is a whole series of paintings doneby Andrew of "Olga" a woman who lived in the town, he "Secretely" painted these portraits over many years and when they were "discovered", there was speculation of an affair between the two. It was big news for a little while then died down. There is also the Brandywine River Museum which is near here which houses a lot of Wyeth work, from N.C., to Andrew, to Jamie, and the grandchildren and great grandchildren. N.C., being the patriarch. If you want, I can get a card of the painting or a print and send to you if you wish.

And about the Klimt, the analysis is spot on.


Lisa said...

And Andrew just died very recently. We have breakfast at Hanks's Diner, a place where Andrew frequented a lot for Sunday breakfasts. Excellent French Toast!

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