The Olson House, a three-story saltwater farmhouse built in the eighteenth century, owes its fame to Andrew Wyeth’s famous postwar painting “Christina’s World,” and regularly attracts visitors.
In the off-season, the weather around Hathorne Point, in Cushing, Maine, ranges from inhospitable to hostile. The Olson House, a three-story saltwater farmhouse built in the eighteenth century, stands fully exposed, on a hill facing Maple Juice Cove and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. During the winter months, its front and side entrances are boarded up, and a wooden signpost in the front yard is missing its National Historic Landmark placard. The house, which owes its fame to Andrew Wyeth’s famous postwar painting “Christina’s World,” showing a woman in a pink dress crawling through a field toward home, is closed to the public until Memorial Day.
On a winter Saturday afternoon, the driveway was iced over and the temperature hovered around twenty degrees when a car pulled in and a middle-aged couple, Dick Morrison and Nancy Cressey, stepped out to take pictures of the house with their phones. They told me that they live about forty miles south, in Boothbay Harbor; she runs a school-lunch program, and he is a retired teacher turned amateur photographer. “I wanted that stark, almost black-and-white image,” Morrison said. He knelt in the frozen grass to frame his shot. “That’s her perspective when you look at the painting, and Christina is on the ground looking up at the house,” he said. “I know it’s kind of cliché to take the picture in that way, but that’s what I wanted.” He told me that he’s not an artist, just a guy who likes photography. When the wind picked up, they got in the car to leave.
A half-hour later, another car turned into the driveway. Allison Gaff, who paints and sketches and carves wooden birds and does consider herself an artist, said that she came down from Bucksport just to take a selfie in front of the Olson House. “I lost my husband a year ago, so every weekend I’m going off by myself,” she told me. “I don’t enjoy it, I don’t, but I’m trying to.” Strangers first started showing up at the Olson House not long after Wyeth débuted “Christina’s World,” at New York’s Macbeth Gallery, on November 15, 1948. The painter sold it almost immediately to the Museum of Modern Art (best known at the time for its embrace of avant-garde European artists) for the “princely sum” of eighteen hundred dollars. MOMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, was a fan of Wyeth’s work and, within a month, “Christina’s World” was on display as part of an exhibition called “American Paintings from the Museum Collection,” which featured the work of a hundred and fifteen artists, including Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Jackson Pollock, Man Ray, and Willem de Kooning.
A decade later, Wyeth sold his painting “Groundhog Day” to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for thirty-five thousand dollars, a record for a living American artist. In the interim, what began as a largely favorable critical reception took an infamously bipolar turn that still haunts Wyeth’s legacy; some in the art world decried his work as simplistic or dismissed it as regional and sentimental, despite or in part because of its huge and growing popularity with the general public. By 1967, MOMA was selling so many reproductions of “Christina’s World” that the institution cut Wyeth a royalty check for three thousand dollars from just its most recent printing, breaking its custom at the time as a nonprofit.
The painting also introduced the world to Christina Olson, whom Wyeth called “a personal friend” in a letter to Barr not long after MOMA bought the painting. “Her physical limitations are appalling,” Wyeth wrote, adding that his aim was “to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” An illness had left Olson disabled, and she lived with her brother Alvaro, a subsistence farmer, who supported both of them. They trusted Wyeth, who came and went from their house at will. In the intervening years, the painting—or, for some, only a reproduction of it—drew so many pilgrims to the place where Wyeth made it that they “almost ruined the whole thing,” as he once told his biographer, Richard Meryman.
The Olsen House, in Cushing, Maine, made famous by the painter Andrew Wyeth.
This phenomenon, unlike seemingly every other aspect of the painting’s reception, has been left largely unexamined. In Cushing and the surrounding towns, where all of the locals I talked to knew something about “Christina’s World,” whether they cared to or not, many told me that they’re baffled by the lure of the house. “It’s gone in spells,” said Marie Sprague, Cushing’s town historian. “I mean, I don’t get people anymore asking for directions when I’m in my garden.” Sprague lives a half mile past the turn for Hathorne Point Road, which tourists often miss despite there being a sign for the Olson House. She is something of an expert on the people who come and go from this “quiet little away town”; for years she’s been researching the lives of every resident in the town records since 1897. Sprague could only guess, though, at what motivates the Olson House pilgrims to trek here from all over the world. “People go to places that somebody created something from, to try to find their own way of what they want to create,” she said. “A lot of people think that your life needs to have a reason and try to find their reason.”
If there has been a decline in the number of visitors since the height of Wyeth’s fame, thousands still come every year, according to the Farnsworth Art Museum in nearby Rockland, which now owns and maintains the Olson House. The museum sells twelve-dollar tickets for guided tours from the end of May through mid-October. Last year’s count was four thousand three hundred and twenty-four, down from about sixty-five hundred in 2009, the year Wyeth died. Another big wave came in 2017, after the novelist Christina Baker Kline published the book-club hit “A Piece of the World,” a heavily researched but otherwise fictional imagining of Olson’s backstory that is told from her point of view, in which Kline sought to answer some of the questions that “Christina’s World” provokes: What was Olson doing and thinking in that field? How did she feel about her many limitations and the reach of her desires?
That same year, the Farnsworth started offering three-hour private tours of the house on Fridays in the summer months which were billed as “The Wyeth Experience” and limited to groups of twelve. Tickets were fifty dollars apiece, including admission to the museum, and they sold out two years in a row. Saturday trips were added last summer. I joined one in late September, with a group of four couples, and was the youngest by a generation.
Our guide, Denice Ostlund, a lively retired nurse, narrated the half-hour van ride from the museum to the house, pointing out local landmarks as we passed: the Dragon cement plant; a well-known shipyard; her favorite road sign, for Lover’s Lane, mounted above a dead-end sign. “Somebody had a sense of humor,” she mused, and got a few laughs. When the van arrived at the Olson House, Ostlund warned us to watch for ticks if we ventured into the field across the road, where Wyeth famously saw Olson crawling through the grass. Visitors often reënact the moment.
Ten minutes later, Ostlund called us inside to a room on the ground floor with bare walls and benches, and she told us the story of the house. She had seven handwritten, laminated index cards with her favorite facts and quotes, including Wyeth’s opinion of Olson (“She was queenlike, she was Maine”) and Olson’s reaction to “Christina’s World” (“I guess I look better back-to than front-to, that’s all”). Ostlund ended with Wyeth’s statement that “art, to me, is seeing. You have got to use your eyes as well as your emotions and one without the other just doesn’t work.”
Then we were set free to explore the rest of the rooms, which—other than an old stove and some potted red geraniums in the kitchen and a crib upstairs that is believed to have been Olson’s as a child—are deliberately unfurnished. “Some people get mad that we don’t have more cutesy things in the house,” Ostlund told me, and left it at that. There are some small prints on the walls, of paintings that Wyeth made in a particular room, and a few places where the original wallpaper shows through layers of newer paint or plaster.
I went up to the second floor, where Wyeth worked on “Christina’s World” for an entire summer, and found Terry Wood, who was on the tour with his wife; they both loved “A Piece of the World” and were visiting from Seattle for ten days. “This was the draw,” he told me, standing in one of the rooms facing the water. “As soon as I read the book, I thought, I need to go to Maine. I just had to see it or feel it or something.” I asked if the experience was living up to his expectations. “I probably don’t feel as much as I did when I was reading the book,” Wood said. “I felt a real attachment to the elements: the cold, the wind, the warmth of the house, the smell of bread.”
Another fan of the novel, Natalie Palmer, an elementary-school teacher from Rhode Island, told me that she has always been interested in Wyeth’s work. “I wanted to see what he saw,” she said. “I can see the light he was trying to capture.” She said that she was fascinated by the artist’s relationship with Olson. “They both had physical limitations.The harshness of life here, can you even imagine?”
Alice Melnikoff was also on the tour with her husband as part of their forty-fifth-anniversary-weekend escape from Boston. “We go away on the zeros and fives,” she said. Melnikoff told me that they wanted to see the house to experience it in a more personal way. “There’s something about seeing how it was created. Where it was created," she said, adding that she loves art but is not an artist. It occurred to me that the Olson House, for some pilgrims, is a place where they can measure themselves against Wyeth’s level of achievement, one way or the other—to find out whether it feels out of their own reach, or, perhaps, closer than they thought.
Wyeth did nearly all of his work in Cushing and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. When he was in Maine, a half mile of water or four miles of road separated his home and studio on Bradford Point from the Olson farm. Over the course of his career, he made more than three hundred drawings and paintings there, starting in 1939, the day that his future wife, Betsy James, introduced him to the Olsons. “The house is there today to be seen in the way it’s seen because of the importance of this thirty-year body of work that the artist produced, whether at or of the house and its occupants,” the Farnsworth’s chief curator, Michael Komanecky, told me. “There’s few, if any, comparable scenarios in American art that parallel that.”
Komanecky reminded me of Fred Rogers; he’s patient and gentle, with a thinly veiled subversive streak. He understands that people come to the Olson House with expectations, but he is unapologetic about the museum’s decision to present it without accoutrements. At the Olson House, Komanecky said, you don’t see Andrew Wyeth. “What you see is a place that he saw and one that had been much changed from what he did see on the inside,” he explained. “You do see the exteriors. You do see the land and sea around it that certainly inspired a great deal of his work; that experience is there to be had.”
When Olson died, in 1968, a month after her brother, their belongings were auctioned off from their front doorstep, and the Wyeth collector and Hollywood legend Joseph E. Levine, who produced the likes of “Godzilla” and “The Graduate,” bought the house. He renovated the interior to look like an austere stage set, Komanecky said. The plan, which Wyeth was apparently in on, was to create a gallery or museum space to display Wyeth’s work, until that was derailed by neighbors’ objections.
Levine eventually sold the house and the land to John Sculley, the former C.E.O. of Pepsi and Apple, who said that he was struck by the fact that Levine had lost interest. “It was where, at that time, maybe the most famous painting in America had been created,” Sculley said. He subdivided the property and donated the Olson House to the Farnsworth in 1991, on the condition that the museum maintain it and keep it open to the public. “I think what’s refreshing about ‘Christina’s World’ is that this is a real part of America, in a different time, yet it’s still here today, in our time,” he said, referring not to the painting’s title but to the building and the land collectively, like a theme park. He added, “We have these unintended consequences from technology, which I think leave a lot of us kind of feeling empty, kind of feeling like, What happened to the real experiences in life?”
Wyeth’s son Jamie, who is also an acclaimed artist, wonders how many visitors to Olson House have seen “Christina’s World” in person. “I bet it’s just a fraction,” he said. “The amount of people they have going there, do you think they’ve all been to the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City? I doubt it very much—painting never leaves the museum.” The Farnsworth has not done a survey, and fewer than half of those I asked said that they had seen the original. “It’s sort of amazing that they’re moved by a reproduction, because I think, in the museum, when you see it, it does stop you in your tracks,” Wyeth said. He told me that the location of “Christina’s World” at MOMA mirrors its mixed critical reception by the art establishment, which, he believes, has only fuelled its popular appeal. “The fact that critics have scorned it and the museum won’t even light it,” he said. “They put it in a hallway next to an escalator, and literally there’s always a crowd around it when I go in there, people trying to photograph it and so forth, and I think that has become kind of a beacon to people.”
When I went to MOMA in November, the fifth floor Collection Galleries were full of people gathered in front of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” “Christina’s World” was outside those galleries, on a wall beside an elevator bank and a trash can, in a corridor leading to the bathrooms, alongside two other paintings by American artists. I stood near the painting for about twenty minutes, and it did stop people—some took pictures with their cell phones, one man mentioned an episode of “The Walking Dead” that had “a scene with, like, someone in a pink dress—it’s a total reference to that.” A little boy asked his mother, “Is she crawling to her house? Can’t she use her legs? Why can’t she just get a wheelchair?” Several people called the painting “famous” and someone noted, “They sell reprints of it in the gift shop.”
“Christina’s World” is still one of the most popular reproductions from MOMA’s collection, according to Esther Adler, an associate curator of the museum’s Department of Drawings and Prints. Adler was co-curator of a 2013 exhibition that included “Christina’s World,” and she told me that the painting has mostly been on continuous view since the museum bought it, unlike an “enormous” percentage of the works in the museum’s collection. “I would hesitate to say that Andrew Wyeth or ‘Christina’s World’ has been singled out for punishment, as it were, in terms of its installation or reception here,” she said, adding, “I guess that’s what I would want to be the official statement.”
Adler also told me that since MOMA’s reopening, in 2004, the painting has been shown, when on long-term display, only in public spaces, such as its current location, in the elevator corridor. “There are a lot of spaces within the museum that are not galleries, per se, but that are still statement places,” she told me. “Whether you consider where ‘Christina’s World’ is to be one of those is a personal opinion.” Her personal opinion, she said, is that she would like to see a painting with that kind of historical and cultural importance shown in a gallery. “It’s a funny conversation to be having right now,” Adler added, “knowing that we are in this moment of rethinking how the museum deals with the stories we tell and what those stories are, and acknowledging that there are a lot of stories and you can’t tell them all at once.” In February, MOMA announced that it would close for the summer and reopen in October “with a reimagined presentation of modern and contemporary art.” It promised to “exhibit significantly more art in new and interdisciplinary ways.” The museum has not responded to inquiries about what the changes might mean for “Christina’s World.”
On the Sunday after the Wyeth Experience, I went back to the Olson House to catch people coming out of one of the daily public tours. There were cars in the parking lot with license plates from Wisconsin, Ontario, and from around New England. Alexa Thompson, a retired librarian visiting from Washington State, said that she and her husband drove down from Acadia National Park when they found out that the house was open. “I didn’t realize you could go in,” she said. I explained that I was researching why the house, and indeed the painting, is so popular—what makes something iconic? “Universality,” Thompson said. “A sense that it speaks back to you.”
That notion was as much of a common thread as I could find among the people who journeyed to the Olson House; they all showed up hoping to find or feel something they could take away, a kind of confirmation or some deeper understanding. The only exception was a young couple whom I found sitting in their car, parked across the road, at the top of the field, after the house was closed for the day. “It’s just got a good view,” said the driver, Troy Crane, who is twenty-seven and grew up in nearby Port Clyde. I asked him why he thought the place still has such pull. “It’s a nice place to come to,” he said. “I think it’s people wanting to see it for themselves.”