Exhibit: Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World and the Olson House

Andrew Wyeth, Wood Stove Study, 1962 watercolor © Andrew Wyeth. Collection of the Marunuma Art Park. Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
June 11, 2011 – October 30, 2011

Growing up, a print of Andrew Wyeth’s c. 1948 Christina’s World hung in our family room above the couch. We logged many hours there watching Rockford Files and The Carol Burnett Show, with Christina behind us, poised in the field beyond her home. It’s an inauspicious association for a masterwork. To me, Christina’s World was as familiar as the couch, Jim Rockford and Carol Burnett. So, when I attended the Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World and the Olson House exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. Andrew Wyeth’s watercolors and drawings dazzled me.

Over the course of nearly 30 years, Wyeth studied and painted compelling vignettes of the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, its environs, and its owners: brother and sister Alvaro and Christina Olson. Clearly, he fell under the spell of the house and the life in and around it, as will you if you attend the special exhibit at the Wyeth Center. It includes approximately 50 watercolors and drawings, the majority of which are from the Marunuma Art Park collection of Asaka, Japan (which are rarely exhibited in the U.S.). Among the featured works are some preparatory drawings and drafts for the famed Christina’s World, which hangs at the MOMA. Three other paintings particularly captivated me.

Stairway and Front Door
Stairway and Front Door c. 1948 offers a view of the Olson House front hall from some distance up the front stair. It beautifully captures the turn of the stair rail and the circular cap on the starting newel post. The front door is slightly ajar, revealing someone (probably Alvaro) partially in view seated on the front landing. It readily captures a sense of enticement, and of prospect and refuge -- characteristics identified in Winifred Gallagher’s House Thinking as key to enhancing the experience of home.  As I wrote in my earlier post about timeless interiors art, those same characteristics are key to enhancing the experience of interiors art, too.

Alvaro on Front Doorstep
Alvaro on Front Door Step c. 1942 reveals that six years prior to painting Stairway and Front Door, Wyeth was already studying Alvaro in relation to his house, at the same spot, only seen from outside. Here, Alvaro is a smallish figure perched in front of his formidable house. Perhaps this was a spot where he regularly took breaks from farming. His casual presence out front is an interesting foil to the house’s severity. Wyeth’s rendering of the windows, in which he preserves the white of the paper to suggest reflective glass (as well as perhaps the soul of the house) is stunning. This watercolor conveys the power of complex order, another characteristic which enhances the experience of home, as cited in House Thinking.

Alvaro and Christina
Alvaro and Christina c. 1968 literally features neither Alvaro nor Christina. Instead, this interior watercolor, painted not long after their deaths, represents Alvaro and Christina in the architecture and furnishings of their home. A worn, vibrant, blue door in full sunlight, to the right in the painting, is notable for Wyeth due to the unusual intensity of the hue. The door likely represents Alvaro, who Wyeth often depicted in the outdoors working on the grounds or on the house. To the left of the door, also highlighted by daylight, are a bucket, basin and basket, perhaps representing Christina’s domestic interior realm. Alvaro and Christina seem present in the “material articulation” (as Alain de Botton might put it) of their home. The Olson House, as depicted by Wyeth’s watercolors, both reflects and commemorates its owners, as houses which enhance our experiences of home should.

Once you’ve seen the show, travel approximately 14 miles to Cushing, Maine to see the Olson House, itself. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Farnsworth’s acquisition of it. Plus, the house is expected to receive status as a National Historic Landmark in 2011. I have yet to see the house, but it’s on my must-see list. Put it and the Andrew Wyeth exhibit from the Marunuma Art Park collection of Asaka, Japan on yours.

by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast