Did Wyeth appropriate Christina Olson's suffering for money? Only a really young person would ask such a question.
Christina’s World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
Then I read essays like this and think some rebuttal is necessary. Zachary Small is too young and too self-righteous by half. He understands neither the artist’s relationship to the model nor mid-century American culture.
Christina’s World is an abstract painting masquerading as a narrative. It could have as easily been titled Three Objects on a Yellow Field. At 31, the artist was not yet famous, but he was subject to great expectations. He had been tutored at home by his world-famous father, NC Wyeth. They rubbed elbows with other luminaries of their day.
His training and instincts pointed him to realism. Nevertheless, the art world was in open rebellion against representational painting.
Trodden Weed, 1951, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here. Three years later, it addressed the same formal questions as Christina’s World, but is a much more self-revelatory painting.
Most of us would have melted in that kind of crucible. Wyeth, instead, created this enigmatic masterpiece. This is, of course, magical realism, not realism, a direct riff on his dad’s storytelling. Not only did he beautify Christina Olson, he radically redrew the Olson House.
In modern parlance, Zachary Small objects to Wyeth’s ‘appropriation’ of Christina’s story of courage and disability. On Wyeth's behalf, I claim a sort of fair-use exemption. That’s what artists have always done—taken particular pathos and raised it to be a universal statement.
In 1948, the United States was on the front edge of the biggest outbreak of poliomyelitis in its history. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 kids were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed; more than 3000 died. Wealth was no insulator. There was no vaccine and no cure. Kids went into iron lungs and parents prayed.
Historians now believe that Christine Olson didn’t have polio, but rather Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease. That’s irrelevant. It wasn’t Wyeth’s understanding, and it wasn’t the American understanding in 1948. Wyeth was painting the polio epidemic.
I like to take students to the Farnsworth Museum to see whatever Wyeth sketches and drawings they have on display. They spell out Andrew Wyeth’s meticulous method. I find him, posthumously, to be a great teacher of painting.
Lovers, 1981, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here.
But as to his finished paintings, I’m always deeply conflicted. They’re technically perfect, but hidden, reserved, and cool. As with Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth painted our isolation. Surrounded by hype, activity and people, twenty-first century man still lives a solitary existence.
Hopper told this story through buildings. Wyeth told it through faces and the human form. His paintings throw up masks I can’t get past. I find that most moving, and terrifying at the same time.