March 2007 Issue
Andrew Wyeth spent 30 years fascinated by a Maine farmhouse and its two inhabitants. A new Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit shares his passion, bringing a bit of New England to Ohio.
Amber Lucero-Criswell stood at the front door of a weathered, nearly empty farmhouse in rural Cushing, Maine, ready to do the inevitable. After all, at some point, every Andrew Wyeth disciple has to walk inside.
For most travelers to Cushing, a hamlet of 1,300 on the coast of the St. George River, the appeal lies in idyllic features that are quintessential New England: white clapboard cottages and shacks shilling fresh lobster, the sound of the gulls and the smell of the sea. But for the Wyeth faithful, mecca lies off the beaten path and past microscopic road signs leading to the austere farmhouse of Christina Olson: a headstrong, handicapped woman who served as the haunting subject of "Christina's World," a painting soiconic, it's widely considered the masterwork of America's greatest living artist.
"You see people just wandering around these barren rooms for an hour or two," says Lucero-Criswell, associate curator of education for the Cincinnati Art Museum, recalling the pilgrimage she made to the Maine farmhouse last September in anticipation of "Andrew Wyeth Watercolors and Drawings: Selections from the Marunuma Art Park Collection, Japan," on exhibit in Cincinnati through May 6. "There's this unexplainable connection people have with the place through Wyeth's work," she says. "It's like it's become their home."
There's no doubt it's a special spot for Wyeth, too, who at 89 still spends summers in a Maine residence near the Olson home when not in his native Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the Cincinnati exhibit's 114 watercolors and drawings revolve around the 300-year-old farmhouse, its pastoral surroundings and its former inhabitants, siblings Christina and Alvaro Olson, whom Wyeth was first introduced to in 1939 by his wife Betsy, their childhood friend. The then-22-year-old artist, son of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, found his muse in the Olsons' New England hardiness and their dilapidated but dignified farmhouse, ultimately spending 30 years enraptured by the setting. (The reserved Christina and Alvaro even allowing Wyeth to turn one of the home's 14 rooms into a studio.) Wyeth's affection for the place can be seen in the exhibit's studies for "Weatherside," a loving 1965 portrait of the home's weather-beaten exterior; and even in preparatory drawings for one of his rare self-portraits, 1949's "The Revenant," which the artist created while studying his reflection in an old mirror inside the farmhouse.
Between the Olsons' rugged, proud lives and their historic home, "Wyeth felt like he found the true essence of Maine," says Lucero-Criswell.
"I once read about how moved Wyeth was while remembering the simple act of Christina pushing a pie toward him in the kitchen one day," she says. "He just suddenly realized that that same motion had probably been repeated hundreds of times in that house, for 300 years before that moment. To him, everything there spoke to the continuation of a way of life that was dying out because of modernization."
Since the artist clearly saw just as much character in the farmhouse as he did in its inhabitants (both of whom died in the late 1960s), the Cincinnati Art Museum commissioned photographer Linda Conner to capture its mystique. The exhibit includes 12 black-and white, sepia-tinted images from Conner's two trips to Maine last year, including one of Lucero-Criswell's favorites: the farmhouse at night. "The pictures really give someone here in Ohio a sense of what it's like to be there," she says, "a sense of its mystery and its past."
Although the setting provided a wellspring of inspiration and sparked countless works of art for Wyeth, what likely stirs most of the 6,000 devotees who trek to the house in tiny Cushing every year is one beloved painting, 1948's "Christina's World."
The exhibit includes 10 detailed figure and arm studies Wyeth did for that painting's figure of Christina. ("Christina's World" hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) She suffered from a degenerative disorder that left her unable to walk, but so detested the thought of needing assistance to move herself around that Wyeth often witnessed her from his studio window in the house, dragging herself across the farm's acreage. However, Lucero-Criswell notes that upon viewing the dark-haired woman in "Christina's World" - lying on the ground clad in a pale pink dress, her legs lying limp behind her, her upper body leaning longingly toward the farmhouse in the distance - many viewers tend to interpret it in very personal ways.
"When I went to the Olson house, I went through 15 years' worth of comment books that people had written in when they visited, just to get a sense of why they'd come and what the painting meant to them," she says.
"Many wrote about how much they felt they related to Christina; a lot of people didn't even know that she was crippled when they were initially drawn to the work," she adds. "But there's this sense of anguish that comes through that we all can identify with, of feeling immobilized at some point in our lives, trying to reach something that's beyond our grasp - and that appears to be beyond Christina's, too.
Cincinnati Art Museum
Location: 953 Eden Park Dr.
Hours: Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Wed. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
$7, senior citizens and college students $5, ages 6-17 $4
Here are just two of the many programs associated with the Andrew Wyeth exhibit. Reservations are required; call 513/721-ARTS or visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org for more information.
Saturdays, March 3, 10 and 17, 1-3 p.m.
Art History Class: The Art of Andrew Wyeth
A three-part art history class led by the museum's curators explores the intrigue of Andrew Wyeth's art through close examination of Christina's World, the Helga paintings and more.
Sundays, April 15, 19 and 22, 1-4 p.m.
A three-part studio art class experimenting with watercolor techniques and understanding how Wyeth created his inspiring works (supplies are included).