Christina's World - The House Andrew Wyeth Painted

An 18th Century Sea Captain's House Haunted the Artist

partial view of side-gabled farmouse, two stories, dark brown siding
Christina's World House in Maine. Lucy Orloski via flickr.com Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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 South Cushing, Maine

In the remote town of South Cushing in Maine, a stark, weather-beaten farmhouse sits on the east side of Hathorn Point Road, on a grassy rise overlooking the St. George River and the distant sea. In summer the grass might be a close-cut emerald green and a row of pines fringes the horizon, but all the other details are shockingly familiar. This is the scene from Andrew Wyeth's haunting 1948 painting Christina's World. Stepping from a car, or from one of several tour busses that lumbers down the narrow road, one might half expected to see the crippled young Christina Olson, in a pale pink dress, crawling through the grass. The landscape is so well-known.

The Olson Home was built by Captain Samuel Hathorn II in the 1700s, which makes it a genuine "Colonial style" — a home built during the colonial period in American history. 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 to use one of the upstairs rooms as a part-time studio.

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

When entering the house in late spring, a visitor may be followed by the sweet scent of lilac from the bushes planted outside. Inside the rooms seem bare — the beds and chairs have been removed and even the wood stoves that supplied the only source of heat are gone. Visiting hours are limited to roughly four months of Maine's most temperate climate — similar to the last quarter of the 19th century when rooms were rented only in the summer months.

Wyeth used his upstairs studio for 30 years and featured the house in many paintings and lithographs.The artist captured stark rooms, austere mantels, and somber rooftop views. Only an easel marks the spot where Wyeth worked at the Olson house.

No Small Worlds

In the 1890s, John Olson married Katie Hathorn and took over the farm and summer house. Two of their children, Christina and Alvaro, 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 Christina's death, the house changed hands several times. For awhile there was nervous speculation that it would become yet another New England 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 and grounds that haunted the famous American painter. Stop at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine for a map and you won't even have to get lost to discover Wyeth's world.

Key Points — Why the Olson House Is Preserved

  • The Olson House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995. The property is significant not for its architecture but for its association with the events and people who have contributed to our cultural history — American artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his paintings. The property has been a National Historic Landmark since 2011.
  • From 1939 to 1968 Andrew Wyeth was inspired to draw and paint the house, objects related to its occupants, and the occupants themselves — the polio-crippled Christina Olson (1893-1968) and her brother, Alvaro Olson (1894-1967). The Olson were the children of John Olson and Kate Hathorn, whose great-grandfather built the house in Maine.
  • Over 300 works by Wyeth are attributed to being associated with the Olson house, including Oil Lamp, 1945; Christina Olson, 1947; Seed Corn, 1948; Christina's World, 1948; Egg Scale, 1950; Hay Ledge, 1957; Geraniums, 1960; Wood Stove, 1962; Weather Side, 1965; and End of Olsons, 1969.
  • The Farnsworth Museum continues to restore and preserve the Olson House with period appropriate architectural salvage and reclaimed lumber. Remilled old growth white pine beams and rafters from a 19th century Boston structure were used to restore the Olson home's exterior.
  • Andrew Wyeth is buried in nearby Hawthorn Cemetery, along with Christina and Alvaro Olson and other Hawthorns and Olsons.

Sources

  • Olson House, Farnsworth Museum, https://www.farnsworthmuseum.org/visit/historic-sites/olsen-house/ [accessed February 18, 2018]
  • National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, NPS Form 10-900 (Oct. 1990), prepared by Kirk F. Mohney, Architectural Historian, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, July 1993
  • Christina’s World, Longleaf Lumber, https://www.longleaflumber.com/christinas-world/ [accessed February 18, 2018]
  • Historic Restoration, The Penobscot Company, Inc., http://www.thepencogc.com/historic_restoration.html [accessed February 18, 2018]
  • Additional photo of Olson House, btwashburn via flickr.com Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)