When Andrew Wyeth first saw the Olson House in Cushing, he was being led there by a pretty young woman named Betsy James, whom he would later marry. It was a summer day in 1939, Wyeth’s 22nd birthday, and he’d just met Ms. James at her summer home next door. He saw the Olsons’ weathered farmhouse and immediately reached back into his station wagon for watercolor paper to sketch the rustic scene.
Little did he know that the sketch was just the first of 300 paintings and drawings he would create of the Olson House and its inhabitants, Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro.
Now, more than 50 years later, a collection of these paintings and drawings are on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Wyeth Center in Rockland for the first time, on loan from the Marunuma Art Park in Japan, through Oct. 30.
“People should take advantage of the opportunity to see this show and the house,” said Farnsworth Art Museum Chief Curator Michael Komanecky. “The house will always be there, but the show, like all exhibits, has a limited life.”
The exhibit, “Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World and the Olson House,” not only commemorates the 20th anniversary of the museum’s acquisition of the Olson House, but also celebrates the Olson House being designated a National Historic Landmark on July 1.
The house, as it is today, echoes Wyeth’s paintings, and its peaceful atmosphere envelops around visitors as they wander across the creaking wooden floors from the kitchen to the third-story rooms where Wyeth completed many of his paintings.
Through the warped glass of tall windows, the view of the land is quite different than the one seen by Wyeth in the mid 1900s — a 180-degree view of the Olsons’ 70-acre saltwater farm, fields stretching to Hathorn Cove and St. George River. A forest has sprouted and spread over what was once hayfields and apple orchards, but from the window, visitors still can see the Olsons’ gravestones across the road at the family cemetery.
“You can never recapture what it was like there, but you can see it through Andy’s eyes,” said Komanecky.
Just 12 miles away, visitors can view the paintings and drawings Wyeth produced at the isolated farm. The exhibit features approximately 50 watercolors and drawings depicting Alvaro and Christina Olson and interior and exterior views of the house and the surrounding land.
“It was somewhat of a shock to see how big all the watercolors were,” said Komanecky, who arranged to borrow a selection of paintings from the director of Marunuma Art Park Katsushige Susaki, who purchased the works in 1996.
“Mr. Wyeth asked me why I intended to purchase so many of his works, and I replied that I was not purchasing them, I was only assuming the role of caretaker,” wrote Susaki in the recently published exhibit catalogue. “I explained that art belongs to the people, and I would temporarily take care of some of his works so that young people studying to become artists in Japan would have a chance to see them. Upon hearing this, Wyeth cried out, ‘Great!’ and gripped my hand with intense energy.”
Students at the art park now study the vast collection of Wyeth’s work produced at the Olson House. Komanecky selected about 40 works from that collection to show at the museum in an exhibit he began discussing with Susaki two years ago.
At the museum, visitors are led through the house once again, but through Wyeth’s eyes, with watercolors such as “Olsons Front Door,” “Barometer in Front Hall,” “Kitchen at Olsons” and “Beans Drying,” a painting of Alvaro’s beans drying in a sack hanging in a room on the third floor.
“Christina’s World,” the 1948 tempera painting Wyeth is most famous for, an image that has become an icon of American art, will not be a part of the exhibit. The painting is owned by the Museum of Modern in New York and rarely travels due to its fragile state.
Nevertheless, 12 preparatory drawings and drafts of “Christina’s World” will be on display, offering insight into how Wyeth formulated and fussed over the scene of Christina Olson lying in a field and gazing at her farmhouse perched on a distant hill.
A mystery shrouds the painting. Why is she lying down? What is she looking at?
Wyeth was inspired to paint “Christina’s World” when he looked out the third-story window of the Olson House one spring day to see Christina lying in the field, perhaps cutting flowers or traveling to her parents’ grave. She’s lying down because she could not use the bottom half of her body and usually moved about using her upper body strength, and a good amount of willfulness.
Struck by a mysterious illness when she was an infant, Christina had difficulty walking and using her hands that worsened as she became older, until she reluctantly agreed to use a wheelchair at the end of her life. Though she was determined to be as independent as possible, her brother, Alvaro, chose to care for her and the family farm for the duration of his life. A fitting scenario since Alvaro is a Portuguese name meaning “noble guardian.”
Komanecky’s selection from Marunuma Art Parks’ large collection reflects how Wyeth captured everyday life on the farm, particularly the work of Alvaro.
“While everyone knows about Christina, Christina couldn’t have had that world without Alvaro,” said Komanecky. “If not forgotten, his devotion to his sister and his devotion to carving out a life there is overlooked.”
The selection also reveals Wyeth’s fascination with the house in general, and its seclusion from the rest of the world, amplified by Christina’s own seclusion due to her disability.
Wyeth said of the Olson house: “In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul almost. To me, each window is a different part of Christina’s life.”
Small details of Wyeth’s paintings — dirty walls and tattered lace curtains — somewhat reveal the desolate state of the Olsons’ home at a time when Alvaro worked hard in the fields and Christina had a difficult time moving about the house.
“What [Wyeth] admired about them was their independence, sturdiness and insistence on taking care of themselves,” said Komanecky.
To Wyeth, the Olsons represented Maine.
Over three decades, Wyeth wandered the Olson house and fields, expressing life on the isolated Saltwater Farm through drawings, watercolors, dry brush and tempera paintings featuring the Olsons until their deaths — Alvaro on Dec. 24, 1967, and Christina just one month later on Jan. 27, 1968.
For information on hours and fees for the Farnsworth Art Museum and Olson House, visit www.farnsworthmuseum.org.
The Farnsworth Art Museum began collecting Andrew Wyeth’s artwork in 1944, before the museum had officially opened, when it purchased six works by the young artist. The museum is now home to 35 works by Andrew Wyeth, and about an equal amount by his father, N.C. Wyeth, illustrator of “Treasure Island” and numerous other books, and his son, Jamie Wyeth, a painter who also is an illustrator of children’s books.
Jamie Wyeth will visit the Farnsworth Art Museum 1-4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, for a book launch and signing of “Sammy in the Sky,” a children’s book written by Barbara Walsh that he illustrated. The free event will be held at the museum’s Victorian garden on Elm Street in Rockland.
In 1743, three male descendants of the judge of the Salem witch trials left Salem, Mass., to settle on the Maine coast. The Hathorns each received a 100-acre land grant on what is now known as Hathorn Point, bordered by the St. George River and Maple Juice Cove in Cushing. The Hathorns were seafarers and shipmasters, and each man built a log cabin on the point.
One of their cabins was transformed into a home, which grew over the years to accommodate Hathorns and summer rusticators, who paid an average of 50 cents a day to stay in the upstairs bedrooms.
In 1892, an early freeze on the St. George River forced ashore a young sailor, John Olson, where he met Katie Hathorn and her recently widowed mother, Tryphene. The women were the last surviving members of the Hathorn family. John and Katie married and John took over the farm. In 1929, two of their four children, Christina and Alvaro, inherited the property and lived there throughout their lives.
After the Olsons’ deaths, the house passed from a Hollywood director to John and Lee Adams Sculley, who donated the house to the museum 20 years ago.
This history of the house is included in detail in the hardcover exhibit catalogue “Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World and the Olson House” (2011), organized and written by Komanecky and published by the Farnsworth Art Museum.
“To me, what’s most fascinating is what happened to the house after the Olsons died, and that’s hasn’t been published — and that’s a wild and crazy tale,” said Komanecky. “There was no guarantee that the house would have survived after the Olsons died. We were lucky.”