No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1624
The painter Andrew Wyeth died yesterday, reminding me of the first time I saw 'Christina's World'. I was about 8 and there was a tiny reproduction of the painting in my father's Reader's Digest art book. I felt for the girl so far from her scary looking home. What was her expression? Was she worried or was she happy? In fact Wyeth's subject (if not his model) was a young woman called Christina Olson (1893-1968) who may have had polio. The Olsons were friends of Wyeth's wife, and for 30 years he had a studio in their house in Cushing, Maine.
Christina lived there all her life, shunning medical intervention, and refusing the description of 'crippled' which people tried to apply to her. Wyeth painted her with what may now seem like mawkish poignancy, crawling back from a visit to the family cemetery where she herself is now buried. Wyeth's wish for pathetic effect shows in his sketch for the painting.
Andrew Wyeth was part of a dynasty of artists: he was taught by his father and his son is a successful artist. The Reader's Digest text describes Wyeth as 'financially the most successful painter working in America now'. A review in Time describes 'Wyeth's problematic legacy'. Like the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano Wyeth is a little too popular and certainly much too meticulously figurative to meet with mainstream critical approval.
What strikes me now about 'Christina's World' is Wyeth's ability to evoke a sense of place. But it's a place that is edgy, disturbing, unreal, unattainable. The same emptiness and isolation is in his later work, but without the hard-edged light and luridness of Edward Hopper's art with which Wyeth's paintings have so often been compared.