Several years ago, I was at the Portland Museum Of Art when they had an awesome exhibit of works by N.C. Wyeth. In a rather out of the way corner of the exhibit hung a large pencil drawing of N.C. in front of the huge palladium windows in his studio. It was done by his young son Andrew. A couple of middle-aged ladies were standing beside me and looking at the piece as well. One of the ladies said, in a thick New Yawk accent, "Yeah. Andrew Wy-att. I think he was N.C.'s son. I think he did that picture of a woman in a field. Yeah. Woman In A Field, by Andrew Wy-att is what it's called". Now, far be it from me to chide these women as to names of paintings, but it's actually named Christina's World, it looks like this:
Now owned by the Museum Of Modern Art, is there another painting done in the twentieth century as iconic as this one?
I'm sure I am like many painters in that we tend to draw inspiration from the masters that came before us. I have read countless biographies of my artistic heroes, like Sargent, the Wyeths, Homer, and Rockwell, to name a few. I have even made pilgrimages to some of the studios of these folks, and traced their footsteps over places they painted. I have stood on the rocks of Prout's Neck, where Winslow Homer painted his masterpieces. I've visited the Kuerner's farm at Chadd's Ford:
And I've had lunch in the diner that Rockwell used in this painting:
Sure, I was looking for inspiration, but I think deep down I was hoping that maybe just a little sprinkle of the magic pixie dust that made those artists so great could possibly rub off on me.
Can't say it has yet, though. Although I am going back to Rockwell's studio soon...
Anyway, a couple of days ago, my beautiful partner Ellen and I went for a ride to Cushing, Maine to see the Olsen House-- the sight of
Woman In A Field, I mean Christina's World, and so many other great Wyeth paintings. The house is owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum located in Rockland, where they have an ongoing exhibit of work by the Wyeths; N.C., Andrew and Andrew's son, Jamie. Right now they are featuring the works that Andrew did of the Olsen siblings Christina and Alvaro, leading up to the his first great masterwork of Christina in a field.
Touring through the house, one really gets a sense of the history of Maine's old homes, and it's very enlightening to see first hand the places that Andrew Wyeth painted. Truth be told, I think a ton of artists would have loved to paint the sights in and around that house. But hey, Andrew got there first. But here's the thing, though: what was missing is the context.
When Andrew first met the middle-aged Olsens in the early 1940's, Christina and Alvaro were dirt poor. She had a mysterious crippling disease, and her brother Alvaro was a farmer, fisherman, jack-of-all-trades and took care of her. She sat in a chair all day, or dragged herself around on the ground if she wanted to get somewhere. And they were both filthy beyond belief. Imagine stepping into a house that hadn't been cleaned in decades, and where the owners seldom bathed. Christina slept on urine-soaked blankets on the floor. Alvaro slept in a cramped up-stairs bedroom. There was no indoor plumbing. The house reeked of body odor, human waste, fish smell, mold and grime. Into that stepped a twenty-something year-old boy from a privileged and famous family.
Wyeth became friends with both of the Olsens. They would spend hours just sitting--rarely even conversing. Both Christina and Alvaro were true Mainers in that if a question could be answered with "Yep" or "Nope" then why say anything else? I can't get into Wyeth's head, but I have a hunch that every painting he did of that house and location (and he did hundreds of them) wasn't to show quaint Maine scenes, but to depict the lives of those people.
And that's what made him great.
It wasn't the beat up doors in Alvaro and Christina (below) that interested him so much as it was the humans that used this space. Aren't you supposed to know what the personality of the sitter is like by how the artist portrays them? Then, I'd say this is as much a portrait as anything Sargent produced.
What about the person who lives in this room, and what was he like? can be answered by this painting, Wind From The Sea:
Down in that field lies a small family grave yard. Christina and Alvaro passed in the late 60's, and they are interred there. There is also a new headstone that looks up the long hill toward the Olsen House. Fittingly though, it looks like it could have been there for two hundred years. It is the marker for Andrew Wyeth. He rests in the place and with the people he loved.