Ever since I mentioned Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, in my last post, our 2007 visit to the Olson House has been banging around in my head. Much has been written about Andrew Wyeth and his relationship with the Olsons and their Maine farmhouse; this is my impression of our visit.
Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009) is renown for his watercolor and egg tempera paintings of rural American life. He met siblings Christina and Alvaro Olson, neighbors of his young wife-to-be, Betsy, in 1939. Wyeth became fascinated with their spare lives and the austere environment of their Cushing, Maine, saltwater farm. He took up a kind of summer residence there for many years, painting prolifically in an attic bedroom studio. The house became a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Now, the property is part of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, and is open to the public.
To the casual observer, Christina’s World (1948) is a painting of a thin young woman in a pink dress, sitting in a tawny pasture, turned (rather awkwardly) to look up the hill to her house. Christina was 55 when Wyeth painted her, using a composite of Christina herself and his wife as models. She had lost the use of her legs to an undiagnosed neuro-muscular disease, and didn’t use a wheelchair. Instead, she propelled herself across the floor or ground by using her arms. In this painting, she is returning to the house from visiting her parents’ graves in the family cemetery, some distance down the hill toward the bay.Wyeth created many other paintings and hundreds of sketches around the farm, some of which we recaptured, deliberately or often serendipitously, in photos during our visit.
When we arrived at the Olson House, a yellow school bus was parked in the back. We wandered about the grounds and waited for the noisy kids’ tour to leave before we entered. We hoped to be alone in this place, which felt almost holy. And we were alone, except for a docent or two. How often do you get to be alone when you explore a historic site? Better yet, we had free rein to crawl all over the entire house—all three stories—and the attached barn. No part of the house was cordoned off.
There is nothing I relish more than poking around an old house. The older and more decrepit, the better. The smells and the textures and the worn colors, and the sense that the lives of past residents have somehow seeped into the walls make the house a living thing.
Click on the images to enlarge.
The front hall floor is painted and stenciled with leaves. I don’t know how old this charming feature is, but it reminds me of the leaves our pets track into the kitchen in the fall. I even have a chair like this one at home.
Beyond the stairs is a large, light-filled parlor. The cracks in the plaster feel familiar.
The kitchen, with its monstrous cast iron stove, still holds a few pieces of furniture. The rest of the house is all but empty. Wyeth painted Christina sitting at her kitchen table in “Woodstove.”
Geraniums still grow in the kitchen window.
Beyond the kitchen is a two-room pantry, which houses the sink (a metal-lined wood box) and water pump and a mechanical roller for wringing out the wash. The remarkable turquoise door has been immortalized in “Christina and Alvaro.”
Through the turquoise door is the dim and shadowy barn, which is roped off, probably because it’s in unsafe condition. We stepped only a few feet inside. I struggled with the light setting on my camera, so I asked Eric to photograph this scene and its beautiful light (which he no doubt would have, anyway). It’s one of my favorites. I didn’t know until I researched this post that Wyeth had painted it, too.
Back in the house, up the stairs are Christina and Alvaro’s childhood bedrooms. The tattered wallpaper in Christina’s room has been left to deteriorate, its delicate, faded patterns mingling like a collage. Our visit was several years before we tackled our kitchen remodel. Little did I know that I’d be seeing a similar effect on my own walls in a few years.
In the attic, Eric captured this scene of the room in which Wyeth did much of his painting. It was from this window that Wyeth first noticed Christina crawling through the field back to the house.
On the other side of the attic is another bedroom in which Wyeth created his last painting of the Olson House after Christina and Alvaro’s deaths.
We walked down the hill and into the grassy field. A hay wagon sits approximately where Christina was depicted, although the view of the house has been obscured by trees in the intervening decades. (More likely, Wyeth simply eliminated all trees from the pared-down painted scene. He also stretched the perspective of Christina’s World to enhance the feeling of distance. As I walked further down the hill, the house disappeared over the horizon.) The Olson House website now warns that this area is private property and not to trespass, but the docents encouraged us to go. I wonder if it’s still possible to walk there. It felt like an important part of the experience.
Farther down the hill is the small family cemetery, with a view of Maple Juice Cove between the trees. Christina and Alvaro’s shared headstone is prominent. They died within a month of each other in the winter of 1967 – 1968. In 2009, Andrew Wyeth himself was buried there with them. The three of them seem to look up toward the house.
While researching this post, I learned that the Olson House has recently reopened after being closed for a year for exterior renovation and installation of a fire repression system. While I’m glad the house is being preserved and protected, I’m also very glad that we had the opportunity to enjoy it in its original, weathered state. This photo of the new pine exterior just doesn’t have the same atmospheric appeal.Thanks for indulging me in a little art history nostalgia. I hope you enjoyed the tour.