Published: October 3, 2000
ROCKLAND, ME. – Topping off a banner year at the ever-expanding Farnsworth Art Museum, Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World” (1948) – perhaps the best-known and loved painting in Twentieth Century American art – has been put on display for the remainder of 2000. On loan from the Museum of Modern Art, the famous image was last exhibited in Maine at the Farnsworth in 1951, when it was featured in Wyeth’s first major museum show, co-organized with the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, N.H.
Purchased soon after its completion by Alfred Barr, the legendary founding director of MoMA, “Christina’s World” has rarely been loaned; it is available now because of MoMA’s current expansion project. It is shown in the context of a fascinating exhibition, “Christina Olson: Her World,” selected by the artist’s wife, Betsy James Wyeth, comprising 20 related works about the Olson family and their farm in nearby Cushing, along with archival photographs, letters, and documents.
Also on view at the Farnsworth through October 15 is “On Island: A Century of Continuity and Change,” an entertaining survey of Twentieth Century painting on Maine islands, which inaugurates four handsome galleries in the new Jamien Morehouse Wing.
Further, in the first stop on a national tour, “One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. Wyeth and James Wyeth (on view through December 31), utilizes works by the grandfather and grandson of the Wyeth clan to explore how attitudes toward patriotism and politicians have varied over the last century in America. (The exhibition will be reviewed in Antiques and The Arts Weekly in early January.)
This spectacular lineup of shows is highlighted, of course, by the return of “Christina’s World” – the masterpiece of Andrew Wyeth’s cycle of works that immortalized Christina Olson and her saltwater farmhouse – to the Pine Tree State. The Olson series grew out of a warm friendship the artist established with Christina and her brother Alvaro, after he was introduced to them by his future wife Betsy, whose family summered nearby, in 1939.
The last of several generations of the Olson family to occupy the venerable Olson House, Alvaro stopped fishing and took up farming in order to care for his free-spirited and lively, but increasingly disabled, sister. Slowed since childhood by muscular degeneration in her legs, Christina insisted on an independent existence, shunning a wheelchair and eventually dragging herself around the house and crawling into the surrounding fields. Her indomitable will and spirit appealed to Wyeth, who responded with images that made her the sturdy embodiment of Yankee resiliency.
Given free run of the Olson House, including use of an upstairs room as a studio, Wyeth created some 300 temperas, watercolors, and drawings of the Olsons and their environs between 1939 and 1969. Together, Wyeth’s depictions constitute what Farnsworth director Christopher Crosman calls “one of art history’s most eloquent and sustained soliloquies on the human spirit.”
In its Farnswoth setting, amidst works that place it in context, “Christina’s World,” which does not reproduce well, looks grand. A tempera on gessoed panel, measuring 32¼ by 47¼ inches – smaller than many anticipate – it was painted by the artist over the course of the summer of 1948 in a bare, second-floor bedroom in the Olson House.
Inspired by glimpsing Christina crawling across the field below the house, Wyeth used his wife to pose for the figure, but incorporated Christina’s features and limbs. By using tempera, Wyeth was able to depict the setting, such as the blades of brown grass, in meticulous detail. It is a marvel to view close up.
As visitors today to the Olson House can see, the painter took liberties with the actual setting, moving the barn further away from the house and eliminating some trees on the property. Betsy Wyeth supplied the evocative title.
The extent to which this painting has touched something deep in the American psyche is suggested by the reverential manner in which it is studied by visitors to the Farnsworth. Crosman is on the mark when he describes “Christina’s World” as “one of the essential paintings of Twentieth Century American art, an iconic image that seems to have as many interpretations and emotional shadings as there are leaves of grass on the sloping field where Christina looks back toward the Olson house.”
MoMA purchased the work for $1,800; the artist’s share was $1,400. This and other aspects of the acquisition are delineated in a display of documents in the show. A wonderful scale model of the Olson House, made by Dudley Rockwell, Wyeth’s 87-year-old brother-in-law (who gives unforgettable tours of the house), is another highlight display.
Surrounding “Christina’s World” at the Farnsworth are portrayals of Christina in the kitchen (“Wood Stove,” 1962) or seen through a window, and “Oil Lamp” (1945), the only painting Wyeth was ever able to do of the shy Alvaro, along with the highly evocative “Alvaro’s Hayrack” (1958).
“Geraniums” (1960) offers a view of the flowers that Christina displayed in the kitchen window, while “Wind from the Sea” (1947) is a memorable tempera of an old curtain blowing in the window of an upstairs room. Particularly moving is “Alvaro and Christina” (1968), painted just after brother and sister died within a few months of each other, which depicts old doors in the shed that to Wyeth symbolized the Olsons.
Over three decades, the setting, the house, and the Olsons became emblematic of Maine and New England to the artist. “I just couldn’t stay away from there,” Wyeth once remarked. “I did other pictures while I knew them but I’d always seem to gravitate back to the house… It was Maine.”
As he documented life on the isolated saltwater farm, Wyeth became fascinated with the venerable, weather-beaten house, which dates in part to the Eighteenth Century. “In the portraits of that house,” he said, “the windows are the eyes or pieces of the soul almost.”
Donated to the Farnsworth in 1991 by former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley and his wife, the Olson House is now maintained as a stark, sparsely furnished house museum. Reproductions in rooms throughout the structure, such as “Wind from the Sea” and “Alvaro and Christina,” record sites where Wyeth painted.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the house is open to the public from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day and draws a steady stream of admiring, motivated visitors. The quiet simplicity and isolated setting of the old place – and its association with “Christina’s World” and other familiar artworks – inevitably have a great impact on people.
Visitors come from long distances for the experience, which brings some to tears, while prompting others to linger all day soaking up the ambience of a site which, as Janice Kasper puts it, “has reached a special place in their lives.”
“The painting and farm evoke pleasant memories of family times together, times of some hardships, a time that was closely lived with the natural world,” says Kasper, who, as the Farnsworth’s curator of Historic Properties, oversees the house. “Through ‘Christina’s World,’ people are intensely drawn to the old saltwater farm in Cushing and, like the painting itself, their reasons for being there are strongly felt but often unexplainable.”
Accompanying this special Farnsworth show is Christina Olson: Her World, a 32-page publication with vintage photographs of Olson, her brother, Wyeth and the farm property, and an introduction by Kasper. Published by the Farnsworth, it sells for $14.
Located in a coastal community with a rich maritime heritage, “On Island” is a natural subject for a show to be organized by the Farnsworth and its Rockland neighbor, the Island Institute. The latter, an admirable nonprofit organization, mounts programs to improve the quality of life on Maine’s islands. The astounding number of islands along the Pine Tree State’s crenellated coastline have long inspired artists.
According to Philip Conklin, founder and president of the Island Institute, there are 4,617 islands larger than one acre at high tide along Maine’s meandering, 5,000-mile coast. Formed in all shapes and sizes, populated and unpopulated, they are at once romantic, isolated, pristine nature sites, wildlife and marine sanctuaries, and work places for fishermen. Mix in brilliant sunshine, fog, rain, snow, and storms and you have irresistible subjects for a virtual “Who’s Who” of American painters.
Drawn primarily from the Farnsworth’s impressive permanent collection, “On Island” documents how Twentieth Century artists have applied a variety of styles – mainly realistic – to depicting stormy seas, pounding surf, obdurate rocks, landscapes in all seasons, the harsh life of fisherfolk, and the idyllic summer life of vacationers on Maine Islands.
The exhibition and the spacious 6,000-square foot Morehouse Wing – providing four times the space previously available for temporary exhibitions – were made possible through the generous support of the Cawley Family Foundation.
The special allure of Monhegan Island, a small, rocky island a dozen miles off midcoast Maine, is reflected in the fact that 32 of the 49 artists represented and over half of the approximately 90 works in the exhibition depict that island. With a lighthouse dating to 1824, sheer cliffs, crashing waves, scenic woods, and grand views in all directions, Monhegan has been a mecca for artists starting with Aaron Draper Shattuck in 1858. Today, under the leadership of college professor and summer resident Ed Deci, an interesting museum in the old lighthouse keeper’s house detailing the history of the island, and a new gallery in the rebuilt assistant keeper’s house offering annual exhibitions of Monhegan art, make visiting this picturesque speck in the ocean even more of a “must” for all interested in Maine art.
The earliest images of Monhegan in the show are nostalgic views of dories and fish houses of the island’s declining fishing industry by British-born Samuel P.R. Triscott (1846-1925). Settling permanently on the island around the turn of the century, Triscott created evocative watercolors such as “Fish Houses and Beach” (circa 1900-20) and “Old Dory, Monhegan” (circa 1900-20).
Monhegan took off as an art colony after the 1903 summer visit of charismatic teacher and Ashcan School leader Robert Henri (1865-1929). His small but powerful “Monhegan Island” (1903) captured what he called “the mighty surf battering away at the rocks,” a subject that soon inspired Henri students who followed him to the island – George Bellows, Randall Davey, Eric Holzhauer, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent.
Bellows (1882-1925), the outstanding painter of the Ashcan group, spent several productive summers on Monhegan, creating some 150 paintings, including compelling images of seas crashing against headlands, as in “Beating Out to Sea” (1913), and fishermen at work, like “The Fish Wharf, Matinicus Island” (1916), set on a tiny island not far away.
Davey (1887-1964) painted the harbor with Bellows- and Henri-like vigor in his broadly brushed “A Blow at Monhegan” (1915), while German-born Holzhauer (1887-1986), a frequent island visitor, focused on hardworking fishermen in “Mending Nets” (1928). During summer sojourns, 1916-1919, Hopper (1882-1967) depicted the craggy shoreline and sunlit lighthouse with characteristic perception.
Kent (1882-1971), who for a time made Monhegan his ‘year-round home (1905-1910), first established his reputation with freely stroked depictions of the island in winter and of fishermen toiling at sea. Returning after over three decades in the 1950s, he painted sharper, more focused images of Monhegan’s rugged beauty, like “Lone Rock and Sea” (1950).
(Kent’s early exposure to the Maine island’s dramatic scenery may have inspired his travels to Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland that are chronicled, along with paintings of Monhegan, in “Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent,” on view through October 20 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. “The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent’s Adirondack Legacy,” an exhibition through October 15 at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., features paintings of his farm in Au Sable Forks, N.Y. Both shows are well worth seeing.)
Long-time Monhegan resident Eric Hudson (1864-1932) often painted from the deck of his boat, as well as depicting quiet views of the island, like “An Island Harbor” (1926). James Fitzgerald (1906-1984), who occupied Kent’s old house starting in the 1940s, captured the difficult conditions under which Monhegan fishermen often labored in strong watercolors like “Fisherman” (circa 1938) and dramatic oils such as “Torchin’, Monhegan, Maine” (circa 1960).
Another ‘year-round island resident was Winter (1898-1958), who was born in Estonia and reflected his affinity for the season bearing his name with canvases like “Monhegan Twilight” (1943). Winter’s forceful, Hopper-like depiction of the solitary setting and architectural features of “Seguin Island Light” (1940) is a standout.
Kent’s cousin, Alice Kent Stoddard (1898-1976), a well-trained and talented but little known artist, maintained a summer home on Monhegan for decades. “The Artist Sketching” (no date) suggests the rugged settings in which island painters – in this case Winter – worked.
Among pictures of other islands, there are splendid examples in the exhibition of the oil and watercolor work of Impressionist titan Childe Hassam (1859-1935) that document the manner in which he immortalized Celia Thaxter’s celebrated garden amidst the rocky terrain of Appledore in the Isles of Shoals. International superstar John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is represented by a fine 1920s watercolor of Ironbound Island in Frenchman Bay off Mount Desert.
A strong late work by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), “Maine Coast at Vinalhaven” (1938-39) suggests why he is considered Maine’s greatest native-born painter and the most important of America’s early modernists.
Social realist painter Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), best remembered for sensitive portrayals of New York City dwellers, employed a rather subdued palette during many summers on Vinalhaven, an island in Penobscot Bay just off the coast from Rockland, as exemplified by “The Boatyard, Vinalhaven” (circa 1950).
The joys of summers on Maine islands became staples of Frank W. Benson and Fairfield Porter, who owned island vacation homes. A stalwart of the Boston School, Benson (1862-1951) summered at a house with barn studio on North Haven in Penobscot Bay, where he specialized in bright, sun-splashed depictions of his wife and daughters at leisure in billowing white dresses.
In similarly brilliant Impressionist fashion he painted a neighbor’s son in “Laddie” (1908). While visiting Benson at Wooster Farm, Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) painted a grand view from his host’s dock, “Ebbing Tide, Version Two” (1907).
Porter (1907-1975) summered for six decades on Great Spruce Head Island, also in Penobscot Bay, which his wealthy Chicago family acquired in 1913. His sun-filled, colorful works evoke the ambience of island life among the Porter clan, as well as the landscape of the place and the maritime gateway to the family enclave, in a wonderful painting, “The Dock” (1974-75).
Works by three generations of the Wyeth family reflect their special kinship with mid-coastal islands and their residents. N.C.’s dynamic recording of pounding surf, “Sounding Sea” (1934), Andrew’s evocation of an island near his summer place, “Little Caldwell’s Island” (1940), and James’s portrait of an island youngster, “Portrait of Orca Bates” (1989) are among the notable works on view.
In contrast to the realism of most art in “On Island” are works by William Kienbusch, Michael Loew, and William Manning, who responded to Maine’s rugged elemental island scenery with abstract images. The standout is “Rowboat to Island #2” (1973) by Kienbusch (1914-1980), who divided his time between Manhattan and Great Cranberry Island.
While it makes no claim of comprehensiveness, this exhibition offers a good sampler of ways in which top artists have drawn inspiration from the timeless juxtapositions on Maine islands between land and sea, man and nature, tamed and untamed settings. “On Island” suggests, as Crosman puts it, “the seductive allure of Maine islands; the unique qualities of island-ness imparting to visitors and natives alike a sense of separation, independence, and isolation from the mainland and mainstream cultural currents, where past and present coexist, rub up against one another, and sometimes collide, all within a few square miles.
On Island: a Century of Continuity and Change is the illustrated, 48-page exhibition catalogue with an essay by Conklin and commentaries by Farnsworth curator of contemporary art Suzette Lane McAvoy, who organized the show. Published by the Farnsworth in cooperation with the Island Institute, it sells for $12.
The Farnsworth, which has blossomed into a jewel among regional museums, now comprises a beautiful campus that includes the 1948 museum structure with its new Morehouse Wing, the old Farnsworth Homestead (1850), the MBNA Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine, and the Wyeth Study Center and the recently opened Gamble Education Center. The Olson House is a few miles away in Cushing.
The Farnsworth’s spectacular expansion in recent years has prompted a remarkable number of galleries, shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts to cluster around the museum, sparking an economic rejuvenation of Rockland. The Farnsworth’s augmented facilities, along with its burgeoning collection, active exhibition program, and myriad educational activities, make it a rising star in the American museum world.
For those interested in learning more about the museum’s permanent collection, Maine in America: American Art at the Farnsworth Art Museum is highly recommended. Written by Pamela J. Belanger, Curator of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century American Art, with a forward by director Crosman, an essay by art historian William H. Gerdts, and entries by 18 art authorities, the 256-page volume is illustrated with numerous color and black-and-white reproductions of paintings, watercolors, and sculpture from the museum’s attractive trove. Published this year by the Farnsworth and distributed by the University Press of New England, it sells for $55.
The Farnsworth Art Museum is at 356 Main Street (US Route 1). For information, 207/596-6457.
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