Christina's World

Christina’s World. 1948. Andrew Wyeth.

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) is claimed to be one of the best known images in 20th-century American art (http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/21/a-closer-look-at-christinas-world). Here, we see the back of a young woman wearing a pale pink dress, with her dark hair tied back off her face (which is hidden from the viewer), sprawled across the bottom of a greenish-mustard yellow grassy hill. Her spindle-thin arms are stretched out—one behind her, the other in front—in a posture of exertion. The sway of her slim back leans away from the viewer and her legs (mostly hidden beneath the pink dress) seem inert. A farmhouse with outlying sheds or shacks sit distantly at the top of the hill, giving off an air of remoteness; their windows are barely visible, the farmhouse door is shrouded in shadow. A pale grey sky hangs over the scene.

In the absence of prior knowledge, we might wonder at the young woman’s twisted, almost prone, posture. We are left to our own private contemplation of this scene; it looks and feels sentimental. We then learn that the young woman is based on Wyeth’s neighbour, Anna Christina Olson, who had an undiagnosed degenerative muscular disorder, sometimes identified as polio (Localized paralytic polio epidemics appeared in Europe and the United States around 1900. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_poliomyelitis) that left her unable to walk by the late 1920s (http://arthistory.about.com/od/famous_paintings/ss/andrew_wyeth_christinas_world.htm ). Rather than use a wheelchair (which would have been difficult to use, in any case, on those grassy slopes), Christina crawled around the house and grounds. Wyeth said that he wanted “to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” (MoMA. http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78455).

How does Wyeth’s witness-perspective of Christina’s limited mobility arising from poliomyelitis affect his rendering of Christina? How does it affect our understanding, if at all, of Christina’s personality? What other questions about Christina’s life in general and polio in particular, does Wyeth’s painting provoke?

Christina’s World. 1948. Andrew Wyeth