A Day in Alvaro's World: What "Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth reveals about her brother's
The Olson residence, a 14-room farmhouse on Hathorn Point in Cushing, Maine, was once described as “a weathered ship stranded on a hilltop.” These words could also be said to describe, at a distance, the life of Alvaro Olson (1894 - 1967).
Passed down through several generations of the seafaring Hathorn family, the Olson house served for many years as an inn, where merchant seamen and lobster fishermen could stay when inclement weather forced them ashore. Alvaro, a Hathorn descendent and a lobsterman in his own right, was forced to dock his boat The Oriole in 1922, in order to return to the Olson house where he had been born and raised, to take over the running of the farm when his father’s arthritis became crippling.
By 1935, both of Alvaro’s parents had died, leaving him, as the eldest of three brothers, to take care of his older sister Christina, who suffered from a neurological disease that would eventually rob her of all use of her limbs. The two siblings would remain in the house, living quite reclusively, for the rest of their lives. As the appointed keeper of his sister and their family’s farm, Alvaro would also become the unwitting custodian of a young American painter’s greatest source of inspiration.
Five hundred miles and a world away from Cushing, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) also had his early world shaped, and narrowed, by illness — “narrow,” of course, being a relative term. The youngest of five children, Wyeth was born with a faulty hip, which caused him to walk in a splay-legged manner. Considered too weak to attend school, he received tutoring at home. Owing to his father NC Wyeth’s notable success as a children’s illustrator and painter, home was an 18-acre property in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, complete with such trappings as a Cadillac, a butler, and a tennis court. While at the Olson farm, Alvaro was chopping wood, cutting hay to feed the farm’s animals, tending to the potato, blueberry and turnip crops, and collecting mail for the neighborhood, Andrew spent most of his days roaming through the woods, playing in costume with his friends, and indulging his imagination.
In his teen years, Andrew studied painting under his father’s intensive instruction, and cultivated the skills and discipline that would soon earn him lifelong success. He gained admission to Alvaro and Christina’s private world when his future wife Betsy, a lifelong friend and neighbor to the Olsons, introduced the three in 1939, initiating a 30-year friendship that would last until the siblings’ deaths. Wyeth would paint nearly 300 works of the Olson house and the people in it, the most famous of which featured Christina, a painting that would become one of the three most recognizable in the 20th century American canon.
Christina Olson (1893 - 1968), suffered from what was originally thought to be polio, but is now believed to have been Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a similar neurological disorder, the onset of which is more gradual. It damages the peripheral nerves that send signals from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body resulting in muscle weakness. She would eventually lose the use of all of her limbs and need to be carried around the property. While she still had control of her upper body, though, she eschewed the use of a wheelchair, preferring instead to use her arms to drag herself around the farm. One day, Wyeth looked down from the attic window of the Olson house where he’d set up a painting studio, and saw Christina, as was her custom, pulling herself along the field below.
Christina’s World (1948), the image of Christina recreated in tempera, struck a deep emotional chord with the many millions who have come to view it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has hung since 1949, and by the countless who have a replica of the painting in their homes (it’s been cynically referred to as a “mandatory dorm room poster”). Wyeth heightened this effect by exaggerating the distance between Christina and the Olson house in the background, but it was Christina’s presentation — her legs resting to the side underneath her, propping herself up on arms red with strain, hair slightly disheveled from the effort, leaning away from the viewer and toward the Olson house — that provoked varied but equally strong reactions. In that pose and its relation to the farm, some saw a deep sense of longing, others the futility of trying to return to the past, still others a nostalgia for a lost America in the post-war era.
The illness that had forced Christina into a life so isolated from the rest of the world, had afforded her a place in the collective consciousness and a kind of immortality through art. It also brought her quite a bit of attention from the world’s press. People were fascinated by the woman who lived like a recluse, and whose world began and ended at Hathorn Point.
This physical manifestation of Christina’s image made the limits of her life and her relegation to the limits of the farm obvious. But it also dictated the limits of Alvaro’s life and by way of circumstances of birth that were every bit as out of his control as Christina’s were out of hers. “Nobody would do that today,” grandnephew Sammy Olson (unlike their two older siblings, Sam and Fred Olson went on to marry and raise families) told the Chicago Tribune in 1990 of such a responsibility of caring for a sibling by virtue of birth order and gender. The alternative has become similarly outdated: “She would be put in an institution.”
Yet even today, psychologists recognize that siblings of people with disabilities are affected in ways that still aren’t given adequate attention and they make sacrifices that often go unnoticed. Siblings of children with disabilities can often take on a parenting role, becoming overly responsible and neglecting their own needs and pursuits.
Named after his mother’s brother, a sailor who had perished at sea, Alvaro had loved the fisherman’s life. It suited his introverted nature. As Christina’s condition deteriorated she increasingly relied on her brother. His spare moments on the farm were few, while his hours at sea had been long. When he did have a little time to himself amidst his increasing responsibilities, he was content to sit and have a smoke, a scene Wyeth depicted in Alvaro on Front Doorstep (1942), the only painting for which the elusive subject willingly sat. The house that is set so far in the distance in that more famous painting, rests heavy at Alvaro’s back and shoulders, as he sits smoking a pipe looking off toward the water.
Wind from the Sea (1947) shows tattered gauze curtains billowing in front of an open window in an empty room in the attic of the Olson house. It is arguably the most famous example of the window theme that recurs throughout Wyeth’s body of work, windows in empty or nearly empty rooms that look out onto a bleak landscape in Wyeth’s signature muted palette of gold and brown. Works that invert the notion of being on the outside looking in, and depict what he called, “...the aloneness of a New England home.” The painting looks out over the same field where he first saw Christina crawling, and he sketched the image on the same sheet of paper that he had started sketching Christina for the painting that claimed the saltwater farm on Hathorn Point as hers. “To me,” he once said, “each window (of the Olson house) is a different part of Christina’s life.” But there were two lives that began and ended there.
Painted in the summer of 1968, Alvaro and Christina was one of the last works Wyeth made of his two friends and their home, shortly after Alvaro died in December 1967 and Christina followed him only a month later. The painting’s title reflects the two names etched across a single shared headstone in the Maple Juice cemetery just below the farm. Wyeth was buried next to them following his own death in 2009. The painting depicts two interior doors, side by side. The door on the left is plain, obscured slightly by the tools and implements of daily work and maintenance. It’s tucked in shadow while the blue door on the right is lit by the rays of the sun.
Posthumous recognition that the house made famous in art by Andrew Wyeth, the house that is so often referred to in shorthand as Christina’s World, was Alvaro’s world, too.
Note* Images are either Fair Use or in the Public Domain, except Alvaro on Front Doorstep (1942), via Marcunuma Art Park c. 2017, Artist Rights Society