I Lived Inside Christina’s World for Three Years

To research her bestselling novel A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline immersed herself in Andrew Wyeth’s most famous work. A dispatch from deep inside an iconic — and divisive — American painting.

Christina and Me
From our July 2017 issue

I grew up in Christina’s world — Andrew Wyeth’s and my own.

When we moved to Bangor in August of 1970, I was 6 years old. My parents, from North Carolina and Georgia, had Southern accents; my sister Cynthia and I, born and raised in Cambridge, England, where my dad was pursuing a PhD, had British ones. The kids in my first-grade class at Mary Snow Elementary crowded around me on my first day, demanding, “Say ham-bur-ger. Say ba-na-na.”

Our accent made us odd, but it wasn’t the only thing that set us apart. My parents were hippies and self-described “culture vultures,” and except for a few other young professors (most of whom lived closer to the university in Orono, 8 miles away), they didn’t look or act like most of the residents of what was then a distinctly working-class town. Our neighbors viewed us with a kind of bemused curiosity, the way you might look at a dog wearing a dress. Mom and Dad didn’t care. They were busy planting giant sunflowers in the backyard, cooking with dandelion greens, making goat’s milk yogurt, and blasting Joni Mitchell on their flea-market turntable.

My parents were determined to learn everything they could about the culture and terrain of our new state. As our family expanded — two more sisters were born in Bangor (bona fide Maine natives!) — we explored the craggy shoreline, hiked trails in Acadia National Park, paddled lakes in our green Old Town canoe. We drove to maritime museums and small-town historical societies, attended outdoor concerts by local musicians, collected hand-thrown pottery at crafts fairs, and cheered community theater productions. My dad read us children’s books by Robert McCloskey and E. B. White. And we all became a little obsessed with the artist Andrew Wyeth, who was also from away, also perceived by the locals as somewhat odd — and who, like us, found inspiration and beauty in Maine’s rugged and sometimes inhospitable landscape.

Wyeth lived most of the year in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and grew up spending summers in midcoast Maine. Over the span of 30 years, he obsessively sketched and painted one particular house in Cushing and its inhabitants, the Olsons. A print of Wyeth’s best-known painting, Christina’s World, hung in our kitchen. One day, my dad led us on a field trip to the Olson house, spreading a picnic on a quilt in the grass where we guessed Wyeth had painted Christina Olson. We were trespassing, I now realize; the house was private property. Today, visitors are welcome to explore — Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum acquired the Olson house 26 years ago. 

It was a sunny Saturday morning in 1973 when my mother spied a three-line ad in the Bangor Daily News: a paper mill in Millinocket was offering a 100-year lease for an island on Ebeemee Lake, complete with an A-frame house, for $50 a year. We jumped into our rusty gold station wagon, our canoe strapped to the roof rack, and drove an hour and 15 minutes north to meet a paper company rep. He pointed from the shoreline to a speck way out in the lake, and we piled into the canoe to paddle to the tiny island, 50 feet wide by 500 feet long. The house was a wreck, with no indoor plumbing or electricity, but Dad had been a carpenter in his youth and was looking for a project. He signed the lease on the spot. From then on, we spent weekends and summers at that secluded place, washing dishes at the end of the dock, lighting kerosene lamps and candles at night, crunching across pine needles to the outhouse, drifting to sleep amid a symphony of high-pitched loons and deep-throated frogs.

My parents fell easily and rapturously into this life, inclined as they were toward an off-the-grid sensibility and a rebellious sense of adventure. As Cynthia and I entered our teens, we sometimes rebelled in the opposite direction, grousing about the hard work and lack of amenities, negotiating shorter visits. But the weeks and months I spent there ended up having a profound effect on me. When I began writing novels, in my 20s, I found myself, again and again, creating stories about people whose lives are stripped to the basic elements. In my first novel, Sweet Water, my main character inherits an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere; in The Way Life Should Be, a young woman moves into a shack in a small coastal village. Orphan Train details the lives of impoverished people on the edges of society in early-20th-century America. And my novel, A Piece of the World, is about the hardscrabble life of Christina Olson, the subject of the painting that hung for years in our Bangor kitchen.

I share my first name with my mother and grandmother. Like Christina Olson, my grandmother, Christina Curtis, was born around the turn of the 20th century. Both women were raised in white clapboard houses on family farms with chickens, pigs, and mules; hardy apple trees; and rows of pole beans. Both were precocious girls who loved reading, and both grew up quickly, taking on the burden of caring for their families from an early age.

I’ve spent hours in front of Christina’s World in that crowded hallway, listening to the enthused, perturbed, intrigued, dismissive, passionate comments of passersby from all over the globe.

As research for my novel, I read art histories, biographies of Wyeth and Olson, accounts of the Salem Witch Trials (which loom large in Olson family history), seafaring journals, memoirs about living in Maine, memoirs about choosing to live without modern comforts. I visited the Olson house, talked with friends and family of both the artist and his subject, relied on the invaluable advice of tour guides and museum curators, and watched documentaries. I took pages and pages of notes, hammering out a timeline from sources that often gave conflicting dates and details. And as I delved into Christina Olson’s real-life story, the stories my grandmother told about her own childhood merged with hers, creating a portrait that came vividly alive for me as I wrote.

Both Christinas were stubborn, headstrong, and fiercely intelligent. But my grandmother went to college, became a teacher, got married, and had children — a life denied to Christina Olson, who was thwarted by her domineering father, a degenerative disability, and the fact that she lived in such a remote and isolated place. She spent her whole life with her brother, Alvaro, in the house her family had inhabited for generations. Over time, she was rendered immobile by a mysterious disease that first became apparent when she was 3 years old. (Today, neurologists suspect that Christina may have had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, or CMT, a type of muscular atrophy that affects one in 2,500 people and damages the peripheral nerves.) Despite this, she cooked, cleaned as best she could, and did the family laundry — by hand, with a wringer — until becoming almost entirely incapacitated later in life. She refused a wheelchair, instead dragging herself where she needed to go. Wyeth got the germ of the idea for Christina’s World when he looked out the window of an upstairs bedroom in the Olson house, which he used as a studio, and saw Christina pulling herself down the field to visit her parents’ graves in the family cemetery.

By outward appearances, Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth couldn’t have been more different. Wyeth was 22 when they first met, rakishly charming and movie-star handsome. A rising star in the art world, his work was already displayed in museums and galleries around the country. His father, N. C. Wyeth, was a world-famous artist and illustrator. Christina, meanwhile, was a shy, provincial woman of 46 who had only ventured twice, briefly, beyond the Maine state border.

As I worked on my novel, I came to feel a deep kinship with the woman in the pink dress who shared my name.

But appearances can be deceiving. Both Wyeth and Christina had fathers who set the parameters of their lives: hers put an end to her schooling at age 12, so she could work on the farm; his kept him out of school and essentially raised him in the studio. As a child, Wyeth had been frail and sickly, a loner. Like Christina, he had a severe physical impairment — one leg was shorter than the other, forcing a limp, and he had a painful hip defect. “I don’t fit in,” he once said. “I pick out models who are misfits, and I’m a misfit.”

By the time she was introduced to Wyeth, Christina had resigned herself to a quiet and uneventful life. In her 20s, she’d fallen in love with a dashing Harvard student who summered in Maine; after four agonizing years of empty promises, she discovered he was engaged to someone else. Her life since had been consumed with domestic and farming chores, even as her infirmities worsened. She’d given up on happiness, though she undoubtedly craved it.

Wyeth’s appearance in Christina’s life was transformative. Enamored of the setting, the house, and — most importantly — its inhabitants, he practically moved in each summer. He collected eggs from the Olson hens to mix his tempera, trailed eggshells and turpentine-soaked rags up the stairs to the rooms where he worked, splattered floors absentmindedly with paint. At various points during the day, he’d drift downstairs to the kitchen, where he spent hours talking with Christina while she baked and mended. He admired her flinty independence, and she appreciated his frankness. They found — to their mutual surprise and delight — that they shared a wry sense of humor and a general disregard for social niceties, as well as an irreverent attitude about things that other people considered important (church, for example). They also shared some interesting contradictions. Both embraced austerity but craved beauty. Both were curious about other people and yet pathologically private. They were perversely independent and yet became reliant on others to take care of their basic needs: Wyeth on his wife, Betsy, and Christina on her brother, Alvaro.

It’s as if MoMA can’t figure out how to integrate Christina’s World into the rest of its collection — or doesn’t want to.

Nine years after meeting Christina, Wyeth began the painting that would become his masterpiece. He was 31, and she was 55. As he worked on it, he confided to Betsy that he thought it would make his reputation, but when he finished, he feared it was “a complete flat tire.” Almost immediately, the painting was snapped up by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. He paid $1,800 for it, $1,400 of which went to Wyeth. Today, the painting is considered priceless, too expensive to insure for travel. It has been loaned out just twice: in 2000, to the Farnsworth, and in 2009, after Wyeth’s death, for a memorial exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum in his hometown of Chadds Ford.

Despite the fact that Christina’s World is one of the most popular paintings in MoMA’s collection — and, indeed, is one of the 20th century’s most iconic American paintings — the museum seems to have an ambivalent relationship with it. The painting hangs somewhat ignominiously in a hallway, across from an escalator and down the hall from a bathroom. It’s as if MoMA can’t figure out how to integrate it into the rest of its permanent collection — or doesn’t want to. A curator at another prominent American museum, requesting anonymity, once lamented to me that Christina’s World isn’t at a place like the Brandywine or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where it would be displayed appropriately, in the context of other works by Wyeth and the artists who influenced him.Wyeth’s reputation changed dramatically throughout his lifetime. For the first 25 years of his career, he was widely recognized as one of America’s best artists, but by the 1960s, following the rise of pop art, conceptual art, and minimalism, his status in the art world plummeted. Compared with abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Wyeth was considered conservative, even reactionary. Art critics derided him, dismissing his technique as “just sort of colored drawings,” as critic Hilton Kramer once sniffed in 1987.

“It’s provincial, it’s sentimental, it’s illustration, and it’s without substance,” Kramer went on. “It’s one of those illustrated dreams that enable people who don’t like art to fantasize about not living in the 20th century.”

Among museumgoers, Christina’s World remained immensely popular, but this didn’t help Wyeth’s critical reputation; rather, the painting was scorned as “dorm-room art.” For decades, Wyeth was the art world’s equivalent of a wedge issue. In his obituary for Wyeth in The New York Times, art critic Michael Kimmelman called him “a virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century.”

I’ve spent hours in front of Christina’s World in that crowded hallway at MoMA, listening to the enthused, perturbed, intrigued, dismissive, passionate comments of passersby from all over the globe. Because of its inconspicuous placement, museumgoers often begin to walk by the painting, then realize with a start what they’re seeing — the way you might do a double take if you glimpsed Meryl Streep at the grocery store. After all this time, I’m still amazed at the power of the painting to draw people’s attention, pull them close, spark conversations. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. Some stand at a distance, appraising it critically in hushed tones. I’ve heard people reminisce about how they grew up with a print of Christina’s World in the kitchen or on their bedroom wall. Others peer closely (under the watchful eye of a security guard) at those minutely detailed blades of grass, as if trying to understand the painting’s strange duality, its photo-realist detail, its unsettling otherworldliness. My favorite comment was from a Danish woman who stared for a few minutes with a look of wonder, then shook her head, sighed, and told her companion, simply, “It’s just so . . . creepy.”

I understand what she meant. There is something creepy about it, something not quite right: that mysterious haunted house, the mysterious haunted figure.

For my part, I admit that when I began my novel, I was secretly worried I’d grow tired of Christina’s World. That didn’t happen. In fact, I was surprised to discover that its meaning and power have expanded for me over time. The arid, dry-as-bones grasses, the lone piece of laundry floating like an apparition in the breeze, the mysterious circling birds, the solitary figure in the foreground yearning toward the house . . . or is she hesitating? Who is this mysterious woman, and what is she thinking? If she were to turn her head, what would we see? These were the questions that preoccupied me as I wrote.

Today, 100 years after Wyeth’s birth, his reputation continues to evolve. Historians, critics, and curators have begun to reassess his legacy. In a recent collection of scholarly essays, Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, art historian Wanda M. Corn argues that his style is deeper and more complex than critics have allowed. It developed in the ’30s and ’40s under the disparate influences of American regionalism and figurative surrealism, fusing into a kind of “metaphoric realism” in which the ordinary is heightened to reveal fundamental aspects of human existence. Like his contemporary, the abstract artist Mark Rothko, Wyeth infused his work with introspective emotion. But unlike Rothko, Corn writes, Wyeth’s work made the grave mistake of appealing to the masses. In the snobbish and insular art world, accessibility is often equated with superficiality.

All I know is that I found plenty in Christina’s World, and in Christina’s world, to occupy my mind — and heart — for several obsessive years. As I worked on my novel, I came to feel a deep kinship with the woman in the pink dress who shared my name. From my own freewheeling childhood experiences, I related to her quest for knowledge, her grit, and her temerity. The real-life Christina Olson was a true individual, a feisty, complicated woman whose life was filled with disappointments. But she found beauty, meaning, and grace in unexpected places. Because she didn’t live a conventional life, she was able to open her home and herself to Andrew Wyeth. Her generosity to him, and her trust in him, created an environment in which his work could flourish. Over three decades, he created more than 300 works — temperas, watercolors, sketches — depicting Christina, Alvaro, the house, or the land. The best of these have had a profound effect on people’s lives — and carved out an enduring space in the public imagination.

Near the end of my novel, the character of Christina muses, “This place — this house, this field, this sky — may only be a small piece of the world. But it is the entire world to me.” For a time, it was the entire world to me, as well. I’m grateful to have dwelled there.

New York Times bestselling author Christina Baker Kline chats with Down East about her new novel A Piece of the World, which imagines the relationship between artist Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson, the subject of his masterpiece, Christina’s World.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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