by Wayne Allensworth
Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth)
Once upon a time in a world that seems like a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a creative writing piece inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting. I was 13 or so, and the paper was for an English class. The teacher liked it and read it aloud to her classes. I can’t remember what I wrote, but that painting made quite an impression on the young me. It was painted by an artist who was as American as his works, a man who painted where he lived, rooted in place and time, creating works that both reflected and transcended that place and time.
Andrew Wyeth was the son of illustrator and artist N.C. Wyeth. The younger Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in 1917 and died there in 2009. The subjects of Wyeth’s works were found near the places where he was born, lived, and died, in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and near the family’s summer home in Cushing, Maine. His works are realistic, yet convey something beyond the apparent subject, evoking the depth of human emotion and experience.
Wyeth’s paintings were popular in mid-century America, as he was swimming against a tide of abstraction. Americans of the period found something in Wyeth that was disappearing in modern art. Wyeth was concerned with place, experience, and emotion. Some critics saw his painting as kitschy and, worst of all, I suppose, nostalgic, but others recognized his talent. Art historian David Piper once said that Christina’s World expressed both “the tragedy and joy of life.” President Kennedy awarded Wyeth the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and he received numerous other awards and accolades.
“I happen to paint things that reflect the basic truths of life: sky, earth, friends,” Wyeth said of his work. What has struck me about Christina’s World was its mix of sadness, beauty, and spirit. In his painting of Christina Olsen, who suffered from polio in childhood, Wyeth painted a friend and neighbor at a moment when she was attempting to raise herself on thin arms, perhaps trying to ascend a hill, gazing at a farmhouse. I always had the sense that she was longing for something, trying to not only reach a location in space, but some emotional or spiritual place, thinking about life and reaching for it.
I came to associate that particular painting with a piece of music. That piece of music, unlike Wyeth’s painting, was by an eccentric avant-garde composer who defied the “rules” of composition of his era, Erik Satie. Satie was widely criticized at the time but found defenders in Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
I refer to Satie’s three Gymnopédies, particularly the most well-known of them, No. 1, a piece often described as “dreamlike,” that seems to invite reflection, just as Wyeth’s painting does:
I like this version as well:
Look at Wyeth’s painting and play No.1. I find it a soothing experience.
Art isn’t for critics, it’s for the viewer, the listener. Both Wyeth and Satie, the realist painter and the avant-garde composer, very different kinds of men and artists, found an audience, and there is no contradiction in liking them both.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.