Christina's World - The House Andrew Wyeth Painted

An eighteenth century sea captain's house in Cushing, Maine haunted Andrew Wyeth

The Olson House in Cushing, Maine
The Olson House in Cushing, Maine. Photo by lcm1863 via Wikimedia commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) (cropped)

Take a wrong turn by the prison in Thomaston, Maine, and you'll bump down a pebble road and land smack inside a painting.

Or so it seems.

Hathorn Point in Cushing, Maine

I had reached the remote town of Cushing. A stark, weather-beaten farmhouse sat on a grassy rise overlooking the Georges River and the distant sea. The grass was emerald green and a row of pines fringed the horizon, but all the other details were shockingly familiar.

This was the scene from Andrew Wyeth's haunting 1948 painting Christina's World. Stepping from my car, I half expected to see the crippled young Christina Olson, in a pale pink dress, crawling through the grass.

The Olson Home was built by Captain Samuel Hathorn II in the 1700s, which makes it a genuine Colonial.The Hathorns, a seafaring family from Salem, Massachusetts, originally built a log cabin on the property before the Captain upscaled to a framed construction. In 1871, Captain Samuel Hathorn IV replaced the old hip roof with a pitched roof and added several bedrooms on the third floor. A half century later, his descendants, the Olsons, invited the young Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) to use one of the upstairs rooms as a part-time studio.

"I just couldn't stay away from there," Wyeth once remarked. "It was Maine."

When I entered the house, the scent of lilac from the bushes outside followed me like a ghost.

The rooms were bare—the beds and chairs had been removed. Even the wood stoves that supplied the only source of heat were gone when I visited. An easel marked the spot where Wyeth worked.

Wyeth used his upstairs studio for 30 years, and featured the house in many paintings and lithographs. He captured stark rooms, austere mantels, and somber rooftop views.

No Small Worlds

In the 1890s, John Olson married Katie Hathorn and took over the farm and summer house. Two of their children, Christina (1893-1968) and Alvaro (1894-1967), lived all their lives in what is now called the Olson House. A young Andrew Wyeth, who had summered in Maine as a boy, was introduced to the Olsons by Betsy, a local girl who would become Andrew's wife. Wyeth sketched both Alvara and Christina  while in Maine, but it's the 1948 painting that people remember.

Some say that old houses take on the personalities of their owners, but Wyeth knew something more. "In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul, almost," he said years later. "To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life."

Neighbors claim that the crippled Christina had no idea that her small world had become so famous. No doubt, the appeal of Wyeth's iconic painting is the visualization of a universal desire—to seek a place called home. The world of one's home is never small.

For decades after her death, the house changed hands several times. For awhile there was nervous speculation that it would become yet another bed and breakfast inn. One owner, movie mogul Joseph Levine, brought in Hollywood set builders to "authenticate" the place by spraying its rooms with fake cobwebs and weathering the façade so it resembled the building Wyeth painted.

Finally, the house sold to John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer Inc., and Lee Adams Sculley. In 1991 they gave it to the Farnsworth Art Museum in nearby Rockland. The house is now protected by being named a National Historic Landmark.

During the spring, summer, and fall you can tour the humble farmhouse that haunted the famous American painter. The Olson House will reopen in the spring of 2016 after extensive infrastructure improvements and historic restoration and preservation. Stop at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine for a map and you won't even have to get lost to discover Wyeth's world.