Country Decor Inspiration: The Olson House
We began our series on using historic homes to find country décor inspiration by talking about the simple Iowa farmhouse featured in the painting American Gothic.
Today we’re going to conclude by discussing another house that inspired a great American painter: Olson House, which was depicted by Andrew Wyeth in a number of paintings and sketches between 1939 and 1968.
Among those works was Christina’s World, considered to be Wyeth’s masterpiece. Completed in 1948, Wyeth got the idea for the painting when he glanced out the window of his home in Maine and saw his neighbor, Christina Olson, crawling across her field and picking blueberries.
Olson suffered from what doctors now believe was Charcot-Marie-Tooth-disease; a degenerative muscle disorder that kept her from walking. Rather than using a wheelchair, she made her way around by crawling. And for nearly 30 years, she was Wyeth’s muse. He looked at her and saw only dignity and strength, and wanted others to feel the same.
“Limited physically but by no means spiritually”
“The challenge to me,” Wyeth wrote, “was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually.”
The Museum of Modern Art – which has displayed Christina’s World since soon after its completion – described Wyeth’s accomplishment this way:
“He recorded the arid landscape, rural house, and shacks with great detail, painting minute blades of grass, individual strands of hair, and nuances of light and shadow. In this style of painting, known as magic realism, everyday scenes are imbued with poetic mystery.”
“I’d always seem to gravitate back to that house”
Christina, her brother Alvaro and their 14-room Colonial farmhouse were featured in more than 300 of Wyeth’s works. He considered them symbols of New England life.
“In the portraits I did of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul almost,” Wyeth said. “To me, each window is a different part of Christina’s life. I just couldn’t stay away from there. I did other pictures while I knew them but I’d always seem to gravitate back to that house.”
Like the American Gothic house, the Olson house is simple: a wooden farm structure that Alvaro and Christina had inherited from their parents. A glimpse inside today shows many of the hallmarks of country décor: mason jars, floral decorations, the distressed wooden furniture often associated with the country primitive look.
Wyeth was initially unhappy with Christina’s World – he called it a “flat tire” – and sold it to the Museum of Modern Art for just $1,800. Early critical reception was cool and the painting – like Wyeth himself –remains controversial.
“All I do is think of that picture and I’m there”
Yet Christina’s World had one unabashed fan: Christina Olson herself. Writing about her husband’s work, Betsy Wyeth recalls talking with Olson about the painting:
“Andy put me where he knew I wanted to be,” Olson told Wyeth. “Now that I can’t be there anymore, all I do is think of that picture and I’m there.”
When Wyeth died in 2009 and was buried in Maine near the Olsons, his family said his final wish was “to be with Christina.”
The Olson farm was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011. The house is open to the public as part of the Farnsworth Art Museum.
Wyeth, the Olson house and Christina’s World might seem like an unlikely choice to close out this country decor inspiration series. But just as the figures in American Gothic represents our desire to make our homes stand out, Wyeth’s painting speaks to our love for where we live.
We hope that your trip to Piper Classics will let you find something to show some love to your corner of the world.