On January 16th 2009 Andrew Wyeth died, at the age of 91, in his sleep.
Andrew Wyeth is one of the most well-known American artists of all time. His works were both loved and loathed because of their accessibility to the public. He was a realist painter which lead to his popularity in the U.S. (we ‘mericans don’t like things too ‘artsy’ ’round here. see also: Hemingway) but also was the main fuel for his detractors who referred to him simply as an ‘illustrator’
I was first introduced to the works of Wyeth a few years ago (don’t ask how long ago, I’m not good with time) when my wife, Kim, and I were flipping through the fine art prints at Michaels Crafts in Milford, CT. We had a newly bare wall and were looking for something to adorn it. As we’re flipping through hundreds of the prints at opposite ends of the bin I paused when I came across a haunting image of a woman lying in the middle of a field, wearing a pink dress, propping herself up with her right arm. Her face is obscured as she is looking away and across the field at a large, dark house on the horizon. Her left arm is extended and her hand is in the grass. Immediately this painting struck me. Who was this woman? Why is she in this field? Did she just wake up? Does she know where she is? Did she take a nap in the field? Is she happy? Sad? Despite the haunting feeling of the painting, the woman in the field seems to belong where she is. There were so many question that this painting raised as I stood there looking at it. It sucked me in. I should have pulled it from the bin at that point, but there were so many other prints to look at I noted the location of this one and continued to flip through.
After awhile I met up with Kim at another end of the bins and watched as she flipped through the prints, until she paused. She stopped on an interesting painting of a dog sleeping on a bed. The room is plain and grey and none too inviting yet the dog looks perfectly comfortable sleeping deeply near the head of the bed. This painting, titled ‘Master Bedroom’ by an artist named Andrew Wyeth, captured the same essence as the woman in the field.
We separated again as we looked through the bins of Van Goghs and Picassos and Munchs, Dalis and Hoppers. After awhile I finished looking through the prints and went to find Kim. There she was standing at the first bin staring at Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’, the painting of the woman in the field. The painting that I had spent minutes staring at and my entire time there thinking about. The painting that chose us.
Later that night I hung ‘Christina’s World’ on the wall above our couch. And have seen it there everyday since. For years I have contemplated the story behind it. To me the woman looks young, her faded lobster-shell dress a striking pink against the grey sky, brown field and black house. What was she doing there? this painting held some sort of mystical power in its perfect proportion, detail and unanswered questions. I knew nothing of the artist until Kim and I vacationed in Port Clyde, Maine years afterward.
My brother invited us to a long weekend at a cottage in Port Clyde, Maine. We’d spend the holiday gorging on lobster and visiting the lighthouse from ‘Forrest Gump’. During the drive to Port Clyde, as we got closer and closer, to our destination we began to see signs boasting “Andrew Wyeth” prints at many of the roadside country shops. It seemed that Andrew Wyeth was quite popular in this area of the country. I can’t remember exactly how we discovered it, maybe a AAA Travel Guide or maybe a tourist pamphlet from a convenience store but during the drive Kim started reading about the Andrew Wyeth connection to the area. Cushing, Maine, a town neighboring Port Clyde had become his second home when he split time between there and Chadds Ford, PA. We also discovered that the area has an Andrew Wyeth museum, we would definitely make sure to take some time to visit.
The last day that we were in Port Clyde we went to the Andrew Wyeth museum in Rockland. If I remember correctly there were two separate museums, one dedicated solely to the Wyeth family and one with a Wyeth specific exhibition of early works, primarily water colors, as well as some of his other works displayed among other paintings. The museums are within walking distance of each other and were a wonderful experience. Prints, pictures and on-line images can never capture the true beauty of an actual work of art so seeing some of his paintings in person was really breathtaking. While at the museum we discovered that the very house where ‘Christina’s World’ was painted was nearby, in Cushing, ME. We got directions to the house and drove, drawn by the same energy that originally drew us to the print we hung years before.
Walking through the rooms where Wyeth had painted while living with Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro was a truly emotional experience. Something about the rooms, being in the actual locations that were the settings for so many of Wyeth’s paintings is very affecting. So much so that the attendants at the house carry boxes of tissues around. It is a common experience for people to spontaneously begin crying.
Unfortunately ‘Christina’s World’ is not hanging in the museums at Rockland but it can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of my goals this year is to see it in person.
Having visited the physical location where ‘Christina’s World’ was painted and where the painting is set, as well as learning the backstory behind the painting hasn’t reduced the mystery of it for me. I know the real world inspiration for it yet the painting stands alone, is a work by itself, full of stories and feelings and energy.
Andrew Wyeth, though he passed on yesterday will live on, immortally, through the energy of his work.
“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future — the timelessness of the rocks and the hills — all the people who have existed there, I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape — the loneliness of it — the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.
“I think anything like that — which is contemplative, silent, shows a person alone — people always feel is sad. Is it because we’ve lost the art of being alone?” – Andrew Wyeth