Far from Home: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and the tranquil spirit of the painting

Volume 17

Updated 15 February 2022

By Rachel Yu Cheng Chan

It has been almost two years since I left my home country to pursue my history degree here in Sheffield. Like every international student, I developed homesickness during my stay. Currently, as a third year student doing a dissertation for history, it was a surprise to me that I only have two more months left in Sheffield. Time does fly very quickly when one is concentrating on finishing their dissertation and assignments - while feeling the immense stress of completing one.

I would like to say that I truly love and appreciate visual art. Of all my love for western art paintings, there is one that stuck out to me the most. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is one of the enduring paintings that I would look at whenever I felt lonely or stressed out.

The painting depicted a girl laying on top of a field facing the farmhouse, yearning to go there - as if she could not. I would like to share my love for this treasured art piece as it resonated with me a lot emotionally.

Firstly, I am going to describe the history of Andrew Wyeth, the painting and the legacy it held (before I start spurting my adoration on it). Andrew Wyeth (12 July 1970 to 16 January 2009) was an American 20th-century visual realist artist who was well-known for his dreamy rural landscapes of the community and environment around him. Christina’s World, his magnum opus and favourite of them all, was created using tempera in 1948 and is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of its permanent collection.

The female subject was Ana Christina Olson (3 May 1893 to 27 January 1968) who was diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disorder which meant that she could not walk from roughly 30 years old. She was a good friend of the artist and their friendship remains untainted even after her death. The orphaned Christina would crawl around her family farm as she stubbornly insisted on not sitting in a wheelchair.

Inspired by her unbroken spirit and courage, Wyeth tried to paint her as authentically as possible by depicting a scenario of her dragging her legs with fragile hands to the farm. However, he would use his wife, Betsy, as the model instead after having difficulties portraying Christina. The rural desolate atmosphere that Christina’s World brings much emotion, such as nostalgia and calmness.

Like all famous paintings, there were bound to be controversies that the artist would face. Many critics viewed his art piece with doubts and disdain about the content of the work. According to the Artsy website, Christina’s World has a mixed legacy; it was claimed Wyeth had exploited Christina as he earned all the money through his painting and none were given to Christina’s family. Wyeth would reason that he did offer but this offer was refused by them.

Another criticism was Wyeth’s decision not to portray Christina in her authentic self (Olson was around 50 when the painting was made). Instead he favoured his wife’s slender body as a model. The artist stated that he wanted to depict the mental and physical struggle of Christina and her illness. Hence, he used his wife’s slender body as a form of vulnerability and fragility, reflective of Christina’s state.

It’s ironic how many critics saw the painting as a form of exploitation when actually, Christina Olson (the model of the painting) felt honoured and touched that Wyeth made a painting about her struggle. She even admitted she loves the painting even though she voiced her disappointment in Wyeth’s decision to not show her face in it.

The painting may have its fair share of controversy and scepticism, but it does not dull the visual beauty of the artwork which depicts Christina and the landscape. What I love about this piece was the emotion it held that made me feel melancholic, nostalgic and serenity. Many viewers also commented how they felt the painting was personal to them. Wyeth was surprised, “It’s very interesting that Christina’s World has such a wide appeal. People seem to put themselves into it. I get hundreds of letters a year from people saying that it’s a portrait of themselves.”

The earthly colour of the paddy field gave a warm and welcoming aesthetic to the viewers. The direction of the wind can be seen through Christina’s front fringe and the strong feeling of isolation is there with the depiction of Christina being far away from her home, yearning to go back.

Like Christina, I want to go back to my home, even if there are obstacles in front of me. Moreover, if you see closely enough, one of her arms is thin and fragile, filled with cuts and wounds. There was even a great emphasis on the space between the house and where Christina laid on it. Hence, further emphasising the separation between the landscape and Christina.

The painting gave me a sentimental feeling of loneliness which I relate to in this current climate of events. With the Covid-19 situation, the emotions that I have make the art piece resonate with me more than ever before.

Andrew Wyeth, 1948. Christina’s World. Tempera on panel. MoMA, Floor 5, 520. The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries, New York. 81.9 x 121.3cm. (Due to copyright we cannot post the painting on our blog but you can view the painting on the MoMA website: Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World. 1948 - MoMA.

Further reading

Griffin, Randall C. ‘Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World: Normalizing the Abnormal Body.’ American Art, vol. 24, no. 2, 2010, pp. 30-49. JSTOR, available from: jstor.org/stable/10.1086/656458 (Accessed: 26 April 2021)

Gravemarker. ‘Anna Christina Olson’, Find A Grave, available from: findagrave.com/memorial/13736356/anna-christina-olson (Accessed: 3 May 2021)

The Museum of Modern Art. ‘Andrew Wyeth: Christina’s World 1948’, MoMA, available from: moma.org/collection/works/78455 (Accessed: 25 April 2021)

Category: Modern