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Christina's World: Andrew Wyeth.

Looking Carefully

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth's best-known painting, is a portrait of his friend Christina Olson. On his twenty-second birthday, Wyeth met his future wife, Betsy James, a summer resident of Maine, and a longtime friend of Christina's. Because Wyeth had come to Maine to paint, Betsy took him to see a house she had always admired the Olson farmhouse.

The Olsons let Wyeth wander over the farm and through their house as he wished. He soon spent summers painting there, using some of the upstairs rooms as a studio. This was the beginning of a friendship with Christina Olson which lasted for more than twenty years.

The idea for Christina's World came to Wyeth one day when he looked out of an upper-story window of the farmhouse and saw Christina out in the field pulling herself toward the house with her arms. There is a beautiful quietness and serenity in this composition. The large area of the field may, at first, project sameness. But on closer examination, the delicate, textural details of the golden-brown grass are reminiscent of the quiet subtlety of an Oriental print.

A graceful balance is achieved as Christina's frail body leans upward toward the house and barn on the crest of the hill. Large areas are balanced with smaller accents. The clear, gray sky adds to the pervasive mood of the painting. Note how the direction of the grasses leads your eye into the painting which is stabilized by the triangular composition of the figure and the two farm buildings. The repetition of curved forms in field and figure soften the composition.

Because of her frail body, Christina is often thought to be a young girl, but she was fifty years old at the time of this painting. Knowing that she must pull herself along with her arms up the hill and through the tall grass to return to the house, do we perceive the painting differently? Do we suddenly see the world through Christina's eyes? How long might it take Christina to get to the house? How long might it take to walk that distance?

In 1949, Christina's World was sold to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Wyeth continued to paint Christina until 1967. She died in January of 1968. On the day Christina was buried on the family farm, Wyeth sketched the rows of tombstones in the family cemetery, but after her death, the Olson farm held no emotional attachment for Wyeth. He did not paint there again.


Throughout his career, Wyeth has maintained a style of portraiture that is realistic and expressive. Although his compositions may vary greatly, his careful attention to texture, detail and mood remains constant.

Siri, shown here, was painted in 1970, 22 years after Christina's World. How do the paintings reflect the different eras in which they were painted? How are their moods similar?

Note the repetition of geometric shapes in Siri, in the background as well as in the woman's clothing. Imagine this portrait without its background. Although it may appear plain at first, its neutral color and orderliness contribute to the serene mood of the portrait, and its repeated shapes add balance and interest to the composition.

There is an element of mystery in both portraits that draws a viewer into the paintings. What does Christina look like? What is her life like? Who might the woman in Siri be? Is Siri her name? What might her world be like?

Key Concepts

* The quality of natural or artificial light affects the colors we perceive.

* Artists may use color to create moods of excitement or calmness.

* The composition of a painting is based on relationships of the shapes and forms in the painting.

* An artist may use various principles of art--i.e., balance, variety, unity--in a composition to convey something about the subject of the work.

* An artist may create a composition which is very different from the original inspiration to convey personal interpretations of the subject.

* Understanding and appreciating a work of art depends upon the viewer's personal experience and knowledge.

Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth was born in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania in 1917. He had little formal schooling and studied art with his artist father, N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, who was a well-known book illustrator and mural painter.

Wyeth gained his first general recognition in 1948 when Christina's World was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He continued to paint in his own precise, very realistic style rather than adopting the artistic style of abstract expressionism which dominated the fifties. His paintings reveal an intensely personal and sometimes lonely point of view. The surface texture is hauntingly delicate yet powerful in mood. Wyeth worked in watercolor as well as the very traditional method of egg tempera. Especially notable are the special effects achieved with his dry-brush technique.

Wyeth's unique style has spawned divergent opinions about his art. Some see Wyeth as a great master painter. Others view his work as regional and even banal. The recent emergence of the many paintings of "Helga" augmented the discussion and controversy of Wyeth's work and his place in American art. Despite this controversy, Wyeth is established as one of America's foremost living artists.

Suggested Activities

* Ask the students to imagine they are outdoors. Encourage them to think about the differences between outdoors and indoors. Do they feel differently when outdoors? How? Why? Do things look different outdoors? How? Why? Outdoor light is very different from indoor light. How is it different? Why is it different? How are colors affected by the difference in light? Ask students how Wyeth has shown this special outdoor light on the earth, the buildings, and the figure of Christina. Ask them to look at the colors of their own clothing, then walk to the window or out side and see if the colors look different. How are they different?

* Wyeth has created a very special mood in this painting. Ask the students why they think he created this mood. How do they think the mood of the artist's friend is created in this painting? Ask the students to think of a special friend. What colors seem to relate to the general mood of that friend? How does the sky affect the mood in Wyeth's painting? Why did Wyeth use so much of the painting's area for the field? Ask students to create watercolor paintings with washes and dry-brush techniques to create large, quiet areas with textural detail, using Wyeth's field as their inspiration.

* Wyeth has created a simple yet powerful composition. Many principles of art are at work here. They are sometimes as subtle as his mood. Ask students to create, without objective images, a collage of colors which reveal the mood of a special friend. Ask students to consider the following in Wyeth's objective composition and in their own nonobjective compositions:

Unity. Squint your eyes and look at Wyeth's painting. You will see three darker areas (Christina's hair, the house and the barn) which form a triangle. These pull the composition together to unify it. Try to use this principle in your composition.

Balance. Notice how Wyeth balances the horizontal movement with the vertical sweep of Christina's figure. Try to balance verticals and horizontals in your composition.

Focus. Notice the main focus and the secondary focus in Wyeth's painting. The size, position and different color of Christina lead your eyes to her first. The house is a secondary focus because of its value contrast and its position in relation to the angular axis of Christina's figure. Try to create a primary and a secondary focus in your composition.


Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons. Eds. Katherine Stoddert and Joan K. Holt. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.

Video: "The Real World of Andrew Wyeth." Films For the Humanities, P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, NJ 08540.

H. T. Niceley is a member of the department of art, Carson Newman College, Jefferson City, Tennessee,
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning
Author:Niceley, H.T.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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