CUSHING, Maine — The roads whittle down on the way to Christina’s world, from thrumming interstate to state route, from bone-rattling rural byway to gravel-flecked dirt. But where they all end, there it is: the farmhouse, its clapboards silvered by age and dampened by rain to a rich, muddy taupe-gray; the barn, shingled in cedar the color of pale stone, ravaged by salt and wind and rain.
It’s all perched on a bluff above Maple Juice Cove and the Saint George River; far below, lobster boats, just visible through a scrim of pine trees, are moored against the outrushing tide. Down the rise and over a gentle shoulder of earth, the cool mist of a late winter afternoon slicks tangles of field grasses under a sky of ashen gray. This is where he left her, Christina, for good and forever, not far from a cluster of broken-down tractors rusting in the sea air.
You know her to see her back turned, slumped on her right hip, arms crooked as she leans awkwardly toward the house and barn, buildings that teeter like sailing ships about to slip below the horizon. He’s here, too, his final resting place marked by a tombstone of black granite in an ancient graveyard on a rocky berm overlooking the sea. You can see it from the house, a black spike in an expanse of fields the color of straw. “Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009,” it says, carved in a no-nonsense square font. No poetry, no eulogy. Just life and death, as they were.
Of course they would always be together, in life or death — she in the foreground of his most famous work, frozen in place just a few paces from where he now rests underground. Wyeth painted “Christina’s World” in 1948; Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art who presided over the rise of Abstract Expressionism as America’s stamp on the global Modern art revolution, bought it for the museum when it was barely dry. The painting made Wyeth famous, but so did Christina, the two of them forever entwined.
Barr knew what he wanted — a foil, perhaps, to the growing cultural monolith Abstract Expressionism was quickly becoming. But that was a hard context for a devout realist, however gifted Wyeth was. Critical response was tepid, dismissing “Christina’s World” as out of touch — folksy, regional Americana in a burgeoning internationalist world with Americans at the fore. Audiences disagreed. “Christina’s World” has been one of MoMA’s star attractions for decades, rarely out on loan. Only for the museum’s six-month overhaul and redux last fall was it put in storage, to some dismay.
You can’t see the painting now, with MoMA locked up tight like every other art institution for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. You can easily find it on Google, but there’s so much you miss with Wyeth’s tight, fussy brush strokes reduced to pixels on a screen. He was young, just 31, his father a famous commercial illustrator who had struggled to shed that skin and be seen as a fine artist. Wyeth had something his father did not — a feel in his gut for moment and tension and dread. Every detail oozes it: his way with the cloud-filtered light on his canvas, searing and pallid; the delicate rumple of Christina’s dress, the strands of her black hair frayed loose from her ponytail; the house almost shrinking before your eyes. It feels like dark magic, propelled by uncertainty, laced with Hitchcockian unease. Wyeth had a few things in common with Hitchcock; a gift for knife’s edge storytelling was just one. When it came to popular art, both wore it proudly, neither one privileging “art” over “popular,” or the other way around. They were among the rare few to prove both could coexist.
I knew I couldn’t see the painting, but I could come here and try to see “Christina’s World” in person, through Wyeth’s eyes. It’s all there, eerily more or less as he painted it, though a small stand of scraggy pine has grown, shrouding the barn at one end, while power lines now dangle over the dirt road. (Wyeth also changed the profile of the barn in his painting to a flat elevation, maybe to give himself a break; there’s no angle from which it looks quite like that.)
The journey leaves you struck by the sheer Maine-ness of it all — the dip and wind of the road, the ragged forest splitting like a curtain in spots to reveal tumbledown homesteads next to Sotheby’s International Realty signs, or battered lobster boats up on stilts alongside stately, fresh-built barns.
There are, and always have been, two Maines — “Vacationland” for those who can afford it, and an uneven patchwork of farms and lobstermen and, yes, artists, for everyone else. In 1948, Wyeth’s Maine was both of those things — he only summered here himself, splitting time between Cushing and his hometown of Chadd’s Ford, Pa.
He had been coming here since childhood, his father seeking inspiration from Maine’s craggy shores, a tonic to elevate his work. In the summer of 1939, Betsy James — who would become Wyeth’s wife — took him to the Olson family farm, at the end of that dirt road. Here, he met Anna Christina Olson, whose degenerative muscular condition left her unable to walk decades earlier. Christina refused a wheelchair, navigating the farm by crawling, hands and knees over the grass and dirt and rock. The Olsons took a liking to Wyeth, and he to them. They let him use a room upstairs in the house as his studio, where he could see Christina in the fields, pulling herself hand over hand. The painting, and its title, are matter of fact: her world, on her farm, the way she lived it every day.
Not long ago, I had an exchange with a Mainer about “Christina’s World.” (I know, it’s bound to be fraught — Mainers can be ferociously possessive of Wyeth, like a mother bear to a cub.) I suggested the power of the picture lies in its ability to be both nowhere and everywhere, an open door to the imagination. When I first saw it as a child, growing up amid the vast plains and endless skies of the Canadian prairie, “Christina’s World” — its barrenness, its chill — stayed with me because it was familiar. It looked like home.
I confess, I never even knew the title of the painting until a few years ago — or if I did, it didn’t take. But that hardly mattered. What was important about “Christina’s World,” to me, wasn’t where it came from, at the end of a long finger of land among Maine’s ragged bays. It was its conjuring of an emotional space we could all inhabit in our own way. It was Manitoba, or Nebraska or Wyoming or Minnesota or Idaho or Texas — anywhere that very real sense of isolation, of being consumed by the emptiness of the land, could be found. The Mainer in question disagreed, of course. The picture was so very Maine, she said, it was impossible to be anywhere else. But didn’t that prove the point? It was for her, like for me, what she needed it to be.
The house — some windows boarded up, no signs of life — is a historical site now, open for tours by appointment. From its front door, I tramped through the damp grasses down a slope of wet moss to a bed of seaweed, carpeting the beach at low tide. I was struck by how much Wyeth left out: How the picture I always imagined could be anywhere was so very somewhere — the thick odor of salty rot, the islands offshore scrubbed smooth by the river’s churn.
The picture itself has a chilling economy: a figure adrift in earth and sky, her refuge so far away. All around her, thick pine forest loomed; the sea rumbled and churned. But Wyeth decided not to crowd his frame, that less was more. The space he left was for us.