In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art bought the painting “Christina’s World” from the artist Andrew Wyeth for $1,800. Along with Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” it is one of MoMA’s most enduringly popular paintings. It has been more than 20 years since it was loaned out for special exhibitions. MoMA has denied recent requests from Wyeth museums (the Brandywine in Chadds Ford, Pa., and the Farnsworth in Rockland, Maine), saying that it is too fragile to travel.
I recently went to the newly renovated MoMA and discovered that “Christina’s World” has vanished. Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, said the museum has expanded its collection and had taken many works out of rotation, including “Christina’s World.” She said it would be brought back “within 2020.”
A museum can do as it chooses with its acquisitions. But “Christina’s World” is one of the most iconic American paintings of the 20th century. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” it has been reproduced on postage stamps, mugs, and posters. It is referenced in political commentary, TV, and movies, from “The Simpsons” to “Forrest Gump” to New Yorker cartoons, and memes, and has influenced countless artists, writers, poets, and songwriters. The painting will never be appreciated at a place like MoMA, where its broad appeal is confirmation that it’s little more than sentimental kitsch. Having fallen out of favor in the 1960s with the rise of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, it is still, in certain highbrow circles, considered embarrassingly uncool.
Wyeth’s style has been largely misunderstood, as many art historians and critics now acknowledge. According to the art historian Wanda M. Corn, in a recent collection of critical and scholarly essays, “Rethinking Andrew Wyeth,” his style was forged in the 1930s and ’40s under the intertwined influences of American regionalism and figurative surrealism. (In his work you can see allusions to both the 19th-century Philadelphia realist painter Thomas Eakins and the 20th-century Belgian Surrealist artist Magritte.) Corn describes Wyeth’s style as a form of “metaphoric realism,” in which the ordinary is heightened to reveal qualities of fundamental human existence. “Magic!” Wyeth once said. “It’s what makes things sublime. It’s the difference between a picture that is profound art and just a painting of an object.”
I spent several years immersed in research on this topic. My 2017 novel “A Piece of the World” is based on the real-life relationship between Wyeth and the subject of this painting, Christina Olson, a disabled woman who spent her entire life in a farmhouse in rural Maine. I sat in front of the actual painting for hours at MoMA, listening to the enthused, perturbed, intrigued, dismissive, passionate comments of passersby from all over the globe. (Even when MoMA did display “Christina’s World,” it was stranded, without context, on a fifth-floor hallway between an escalator and the restrooms.)
Over the years, I came to believe that this painting is a Rorschach test, a magic trick, a sleight of hand. Alone in a sea of dry grass, Christina is the archetypal individual against a backdrop of nature, fully present in the moment and yet a haunting reminder of the immensity of time. She is paradoxically singular and representative, exposed and enigmatic, hardy and vulnerable. She is solitary but surrounded by the ghosts of her past. Like the house, like the landscape, she perseveres. As one curator has noted, “The painting is more a psychological landscape than a portrait, a portrayal of a state of mind rather than a place.”
“Christina’s World” doesn’t belong at MoMA, where it will never be appreciated. It belongs in a place that will do it justice, situating it in context with artists who influenced Wyeth and who, in turn, were influenced by him. Like two paintings with which Christina’s World is often grouped — James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (1871; commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”) and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930) — “Christina’s World” exhibits traits we think of as distinctly American: rugged individualism and quiet strength, defiance in the face of obstacles, a kind of stubborn perseverance.
If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll be sure to glimpse John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X.” At the Louvre you’ll see the “Mona Lisa.” At the Whitney, Edward Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun” is always on display. At MoMA you know you’re going to find those soup cans and that brilliant starry night. Christina, meanwhile, is hidden in storage.
Christina Baker Kline is the author of seven novels, including “Orphan Train.”