In this age of joy and tragedy, good fortune and disappointment it occasionally occurs that we are rewarded by something that has a profound personal significance, which at the time seems almost unbelievable. Such an event occurred for your humble scribe in the form of a book of superior quality that materialized in unblemished condition among hundreds of other books of lesser interest at a business establishment that shall remain nameless.
It was a large, 275-page hard bound volume titled Christina’s World, a collection of pre-studies, drawings and paintings comprising the entire preliminary work for the world famous painting: Christina’s World by the renowned American painter Andrew Wyeth. The book was compiled by his wife Betsy James Wyeth in 1982 who wrote the narrative and descriptive text.
The Christina of the painting was Anna Christina Olsen who, with her brother Alvaro, lived in the windswept, seaside family house in Cushing, Maine until her death in 1968, at age 72. Beginning as a young girl Christina was progressively crippled by an unnamed wasting disease that left her, eventually, unable to walk. Somehow she managed to keep house in the early 19th century beautiful, but well-worn home she and her siblings fell heir to, all of whom left in their time to marry, leaving Christina and Alvaro to make their living there.
Andrew Wyeth was introduced to the house and the Olsens by Betsy James whom he had met in the summer of 1939 and married ten months later. For 27 years Andrew Wyeth painted at the Olsen house and land, until Alvaro died on Christmas Eve 1967. Christina followed him on 27 January 1968, 34 days later.
Andrew painted every room, every angle of the house, the ell and barn from the outside, and in every direction of the outside from the inside. Some of the most beautiful and enduring paintings of his long career were captured at Olsen’s. His Wind From The Sea, which captures the powerful yet ultra simplicity of the onshore breeze through a tattered window curtain, or the Hay Shelf, with Alvaro’s dory, stark white against the gloom of the barn loft, among many others done in Wyeth’s inimitable style, including of course Christina’s World, perhaps the most familiar painting in American art. Because of Christina’s frailty and contorted joints, she could never have gotten to where she is seen in the painting. Instead, Wyeth used his wife Betsy as a model for the elements of Christina’s form crawling toward home on the distant skyline.
Andrew Wyeth painted in egg tempera and watercolour, using the latter for quick sketches and detail that would be incorporated into the finished tempera paintings. Each working day in his studio began with the mixing of his pigments in raw egg yolk, and then continuing with the work in progress. He worked from his studies and sketches of the subject, emphasizing the detail he painstaking produced in the pre-study drawings he wished to include. Pictures took months and often years to complete, were composed and painted with almost photographic precision, but with that special arrangement of detail and colour unique only to Wyeth.
The book includes the detail for Christina’s World as well as studies for numerous other pictures completed at Olsen’s over the years, and is a marvellous addition to an expanding library of Wyeth’s work methods, meticulous sketches and pre-studies, as well as prints of completed pictures, some of which are literally priceless.
Andrew Wyeth died on 16 January 2009 at his home in Chadd’s Ford Pennsylvania at age 91 and is buried in the Olsen family plot, Cushing Maine.
John G. McKay is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.