Take an art break

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.

Olson House, Cushing, Maine

Olson House

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.

Gable on weathered house, missing window trim

Gable

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.

Christina's World - Andrew Wyeth [Wikipedia]

Christina’s World – Andrew Wyeth, 1948

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.

Stenciled leaves on the hall floor, Olson House

Leaves on the floor

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.

Olson House with new pine siding

Restoration [northernnewengland.aaa.com]

 Thanks for indulging me in a little art history nostalgia. I hope you enjoyed the tour.

Old woman with dark hair cuddling black kitten on her chest

Miss Olson [A. Wyeth, 1962]

Andrew Wyeth and Alvaro Olson with wagon in front of Olson house

Andrew Wyeth and Alvaro Olson [Kosti Ruohomaa]

Alvaro, Christina, and Andrew

Alvaro, Christina, and Andrew [Richard Meryman]

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

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13 thoughts on “Take an art break

  1. Barbara H.

    Thank you for this wonderful tour! I didn’t know any of this other than being familiar with pictures of some of the paintings. I’m glad you got to see it when you did, too – it must have been a fascinating visit.

    Reply
  2. Karen B.

    I love Andrew Wyeth and used to have a framed print from this time in the artists life. I don’t recall what it was called but it featured a Canada goose on a side table beside a basket of apples. What a fun tour. Thanks for sharing the additional details about the house that inspired such beautiful work.
    Karen

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Karen. The print you had is called Wolf Rivers. I saw a lot of Wyeth prints while writing that post! 🙂 It was a fun journey back to 2007 for me.

      Reply
  3. Nine Dark Moons

    wow, amazing post – makes me want to go see it, but before the renovation. i agree with you – the “after” picture of the house just looks so generic. to see it in it’s natural state would have been magical.

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Alison, I’m hoping that the siding with weather over a couple of years and no longer look brand-spankin’ new. Then it’ll seem more authentic again. I don’t think they’ve changed the interior. Heck, it’s almost in your neighborhood … a day trip! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Eric Shellgren

    What surprised me was that I had captured so many scenes at the Olson property with my camera that Wyeth painted. Many of the places I stood just felt like they needed to be captured. The light was perfect and the mood was still. I have seen many of Wyeth’s paintings but had not seen many of the Olson farm pictures until much later. It was a magical experience.

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      You should go! It’s a special place for art history. It’s not open in winter, but I’ve seen some beautiful photos of the place in snow, too.

      Reply
  5. Africadayz

    D’Arcy, this is one of my favourite blog posts ever! Not only have I enjoyed learning about Andrew Wyeth, but I absolutely loved the house and your descriptions of it. Thank you! I had wondered about the awkwardness of Christina’s position in that painting and then you explained it all. I too like nothing better than looking around old and empty houses. The older and emptier the better! I would love to visit this house.

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Hi Jacqui! Yes, it’s a magical house and I feel so privileged to have seen it. I also learned much more about Wyeth and his relationship with the Olsons as I researched. I left out a lot … his life is an interesting story.
      By the way, lately I have been unable to comment on any of the blogs I follow, so if you don’t get a comment from me, that’s why. Very frustrating!

      Reply

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