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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth was born 100 years ago this month. The son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (and the father of Jamie, another artist), he was one of the most famous and successful American artists of the twentieth century, yet his place in the academy is not secure, most probably due to his being a realist painter in an age of abstract art. Realism as a form of painting died out after the invention of the camera, which provided all the realism anyone would need.

Wyeth's most famous painting is Christina's World, painted in 1948. It is one of the most famous American paintings; I would venture to guess it's the most famous of the twentieth century, and right up there with "Whistler's Mother" or the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that adorns the one-dollar bill as the most famous of all American paintings.

It is realistic, but the story it tells is open to interpretation. The facts are these: the model is Anna Christina Olson, who lived in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth saw her crawling across the field from a window and was inspired to paint her. The house still stands, and you can tour it if you'd like.

Why was she crawling? If you look very closely at her hands you can see that she is crippled. Olson suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a polyneuropathy that affects the muscles and is similar to muscular dystrophy (it was once sub-classified as form of MD).

At first glance, without that knowledge, I see a woman stranded. Some people may like to go and lay in the grass, but even though we don't see her face there seems to be some peril in the picture. She is a long way from the house and barn, and there is no indication that anyone is there to help her. How did she get there? She is heading toward the house, with a body language that suggests, to me at least, desperation, as if something were chasing her, or as if she was terribly late for something.

It appears from the reality that Olson, given her affliction and getting used to it, crawled easily and for great distances, and perhaps she was just on a simple jaunt. But Wyeth has made her seem stopped in movement--she wants to move, but can't. To me, it's a terrifying painting, something of a horror story.

When the painting was first exhibited it didn't cause much stir, and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art for $1,800, where it still is today. I'd say it's value now it is considerably higher. It is frequently parodied--Google Christina's World parodies and you'll see some good and bad. My favorite is of Montgomery Burns in Christina's position (it hangs on his wall). Most recently, I've seen Chris Christie in a beach chair in that field.

I could look at this picture for hours, even though it is only a girl, a field, a house, and a barn. So much could be told from it.


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