What Few People Know About This Classic Painting

Christina’s World
is one of the most iconic — and most mysterious — American realist paintings of the 20th century. At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about the scene, but the meaning of Andrew Wyeth’s painting changes dramatically when you learn about his subject, Christina Olson. Wyeth met Olson in 1939 when she was living on a farm in Cushing, Maine. In fact, the Olson family's 16-room house is pictured in the painting. After her parents passed away in 1935, Christina lived at the house with her brother Alvaro. As time went on, she suffered from weakness in her feet and lower leg muscles, which made it harder to walk. Neurologists initially thought she had polio, but it’s now believed that she suffered from a then undiagnosed neurodegenerative condition called Charcot-Marie Tooth disease. By the time she reached her late twenties, Christina was paralyzed from the waist down. Stubborn and self-reliant, she resisted the idea of using a wheelchair or crutches, instead preferring to crawl or drag herself around the house. Wyeth was introduced to Christina by his wife Betsy, and over time the group grew closer and more trusting of each other. In fact, Christina allowed Wyeth to use one of the bedrooms in her house as a studio. He decided to paint Christina’s World after looking out the window of his studio one late afternoon in the summer of 1948 and seeing Christina dragging herself across the grassy plain below. Watching her frail, deformed body attempt to propel herself back to the house, he couldn’t help but marvel at her resilience. Reflecting on why he chose to paint Christina, Wyeth once stated that he sought "to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” Christina, herself, is said to have loved the painting.