The Mona Lisa, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Andrew Wyeth (Part 2)

In a previous post, I discussed the idea that famous art is often cherished, mocked, reconfigured, and re-imagined through its history.

These two posts, the last one and this one, are based on the concept of starting with another artist's work as you own jumping off point.

Switch your thinking with me now to Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his well-known painting of Christina’s World, 1948.

In this painting, Christina is shown possibly lounging (?), resting (?), pausing (?), on the ground, in a pasture quite a distance from some farm buildings on the horizon.

Christina's World
Christina's World, by Andrew Wyeth. Egg tempera on panel, 32 ½” x 47 ¾, 1948. From the collection of MoMA, NYC.

We see her from the back. She is wearing a pink dress and her torso is pushed up on her arms in an awkward pose. Is she looking for something? Anticipating something?

The ambiguity of the pose, the distances between the woman and the buildings, and the overall quietness of what is happening in the painting is spellbinding. We continue to be drawn to the painting to solve these mysteries. Who is she? What is she doing so far from anything? Why is she on the ground?

The facts behind the painting answer those questions but, to me, bring up many more...and more disturbing questions too.

Wyeth’s neighbor (Anna Christina Olson), whom he identified as Christina in several paintings, had a degenerative muscular episode, possibly polio, according to the Museum of Modern Art, NY, which houses the painting. Or, it may have been Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, according to an essay by Desponia Tsoll. Either disorder would cause weakness in the leg muscles.

Rather than use a wheelchair, Olson preferred to crawl using her arms and to pull her lower body along.

“The challenge to me,” Wyeth explained, “was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do.”

MOMA Website

I have always found this painting too voyeuristic to be compatible with my sensibilities.

I do not agree that Wyeth has depicted her courage and her “extraordinary conquest of a life.”

I think that showing this faceless woman by all rights a thousand miles from the farmhouse is cruel. (If I had to drag myself by my arms across a farm field filled with the stubble of the now harvested and dormant crop, it would seem like a thousand miles.)

She doesn’t have a posture that declares: “I am woman; hear me roar.” We are actually not able to judge her mindset because we can’t see her face--another off-putting decision to me. But her posture suggests something other than confidence with an abundant sense of accomplishment.

When viewing this painting, I feel like a member of the predatory paparazzi. I feel like I should put down my camera (or paintbrush) and help the woman.

Recently, a watercolor student of mine asked me if we could study this painting and paint it “after” the painting by Wyeth.

Doing a painting “after” another artist is what you call it when you are using a painting by another artist as a starting point.

Observing, analyzing, and re-creating a painting "after" an artist allows you to understand their thinking, their sequencing, their problem solving, etc. It’s a legitimate way to study art, as long as you are not directly copying the original. And, as long as you credit the artist who created the original.

So, although this was a reasonable request, I expressed my hesitancy, based on my feelings of invading Christina’s privacy.

How could our competing interests be resolved: study the painting without intruding on Christina's privacy?

After much discussion, we settled on the idea of creating a watercolor interpretation of this painting by Wyeth, by leaving Christina out of the painting. We imagined her comfortably back at her home having an ice tea, or an Arnold Palmer, or a Whiskey Sour—whatever she felt like.

This painting manifested itself from this discussion with one of my charming watercolor students.*

Below is the one that I have on my website, Christina’s World Without Christina. I love the painting and I am happier that it doesn't show Christina dragging herself through a field.

Christina's World without Christina, After Andrew Wyeth

I feel this version allows me to imagine her enjoying her life. It is a jest; a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Christina's World, with my sense of whimsy. Definitely encouraged by the wry sense of humor in my student.

Meanwhile...back to the Wyeth story...Andrew Wyeth married one of Christina’s best friends, so he spent thirty years visiting Christina; sketching and painting her. Christina Olson died in January, 1968.

* Interested in being a watercolor student of mine? I teach through TakeLessons, an online teaching platform. Check out my profile and sign up for classes.

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