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In the tradition of great storytellers, Davis continues to approach Off The Path in serial form. He’ll explore this season, called "Off the Plank," in 2 or 3 installments and then combine them into a single podcast episode. Here, you’ll find those individual installments — which we’re calling “Mile Markers.” Enjoy the ride!

Christina's World: The woman behind the painting

The Olson House, as seen from an angle similar to that in Wyeth's painting "Christina's World."
Davis Dunavin
The Olson House, as seen from an angle similar to that in Wyeth's painting "Christina's World."

Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting “Christina’s World” shows the reality of life for his longtime friend, a woman with a disability, on her farm in coastal Maine.

Christina Olson spent her life on the farm with her brother Alvaro. Andrew Wyeth met them when he summered nearby.

Wyeth stayed on the farm and made hundreds of paintings and sketches of both the landscape and the siblings. It’s also where he made his masterpiece — showing Christina on the ground, almost crawling across the field, looking up at the house.

Jane Bianco, a curator with the Farnsworth Museum, likes to invite visitors to imagine the view from Christina’s perspective.

“As if she's lying in the field or perhaps going towards the house from down on the ground, perhaps from picking flowers," Jane said. "And up in the distance, on a windswept hill, is a monumental house of three floors and two gables and two center chimneys.”

Christina and Alvaro lived on the farm their whole lives.

“Christina was baking pies. She was known to be an excellent seamstress. She was very sociable. And she was the victim of a degenerative muscular disorder, which was never diagnosed during her lifetime,” Bianco said.

Some doctors now believe it was a rare condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease.

“So gradually, she lost the ability or her mobility was impacted by that," she said. "And in fact, when you see her in the field, or in the painting, she is probably making her way back towards the house.”

Christina refused to use any mobility aids. So what we’re seeing in the painting is her literally pulling herself across the field — back to her house — using just her arms. Jane said we don’t know much about why Christina decided to live without mobility aids.

“This is only a conjecture — that it might have been that she just didn't want to be in a wheelchair. She was in an independent spirit. She was a very strong woman and she and her brother just needed to keep up the farm. They had a wonderful support system with family and friends. And I believe they had a happy life. They had a hard life. But they had a happy life together.”

Andrew and his wife Betsy spent every summer for thirty years on or near the farm. In fact, Betsy served as the model for the torso in the painting — Christina was 55 years old, and Wyeth depicted a younger version of her.

Andrew and Betsy became a big part of the siblings’ life — so much so that they chose to be buried here on the farm, in a tiny cemetery tucked away next to the field. Jane leads me down to see it. Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro are buried just nearby.

“I think he felt a strong affinity to Christina," Jane said. And Alvaro, and this place.”

It strikes me that the view from this cemetery is very close to the one shown in Wyeth’s iconic painting. Jane agrees.

“If you personify the monument — if this embodies in some way, the spirit of Andrew Wyeth — he's looking towards the house," Jane said.

A memorial every bit as powerful as a painting.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.