Andrew Wyeth met his future wife and the subject of his most famous painting, Christina’s World, on the same day – his 22nd birthday.
Christina Olson was born on May 3, 1893 and contracted polio as a child. Her world was limited to her farm on Hathorne’s Point in Cushing, Maine, where she lived with her brother Alvaro. The house had been in their family for generations, since Capt. Samuel Hathorne II built it in the late 18th century.
Wyeth spent summers at his family home in Cushing.
In The Art of Andrew Wyeth, Brian O’Doherty described his visit to the Olsons at their farm.
“…the first thing that one notices about Christina is her voice,” he wrote. “It is firmly lucid, a practical countrywoman’s voice, and it immediately wipes out her myth, the romantic half-pitiable aura of a spirit strait-jacketed into immobility. Her voice is immediate, without self-pity, and she follows what she has to say with a shrewd slow look from her brown eyes. She has a force of character that would make any condescension to her paralysis an insult.”
“She rules like a queen,” Wyeth once said.
Wyeth met the Olsons on a date with Betsy James – July 12, 1939. He went to her house nearby, and she drove him to the Olson farm. Betsy vaguely remembered the reason: She’d just learned to drive and wanted to go somewhere. She and Andrew were married the next year.
Years after meeting Christina, Wyeth later said, she didn’t make much of an impression on him. The farmhouse did. The Olsons let him set up a studio in a room on the second floor. Looking out the window one day in 1948, Wyeth saw Christina crawling in the field and got the inspiration for Christina’s World.
He worked on the background for two months, while closely sketching Christina’s hair, body and hands. Betsy posed for the figure. “I worked on the hill for months, that brown grass, and kept thinking about her in her pink dress like a faded lobster shell I might find on the beach, crumpled.” When it came time to lay in the figure, he put a pink tone on her shoulder – “and it almost blew me across the room.”
Wyeth hung the painting in his house in Maine and no one reacted to it. “I thought, Boy, is this one ever a flat tire,” he said.
He was wrong. From then on he started receiving letters about Christina’s World -- about one a week.
He had painted Christina Olson many times on her farm. Christina’s World, she said, was her favorite.
Alvaro Olson died on Christmas Eve in 1967, and Christina died a month later. They were buried on their property in their family cemetery. Andrew Wyeth died on Jan. 16, 2009. He, too, was buried in the Olson family cemetery.
The farmhouse, a National Historic Landmark, is now owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Christina's World hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
This story was updated in 2017.