How Andrew Wyeth Made a Painting: A Journey Into His Best-Known Work Christina’s World

Andrew Wyeth died a decade ago, but his sta­tus as a beloved Amer­i­can painter was assured long before. He paint­ed his best-known work Christi­na’s World in 1948, a time in Amer­i­can paint­ing when images of imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able fields, farm­hous­es, and mid­dle-aged women were not, to put it mild­ly, in vogue. But Christi­na’s World has sur­vived right along­side, say, Jack­son Pol­lock­’s drip paint­ings from the very same year. How it has done so — and what way of see­ing enabled Wyeth to paint it with such con­fi­dence in the first place — con­sti­tutes the sub­ject of this new video essay by Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer (whose inves­ti­ga­tions into Picas­so, Rem­brandt, Van Gogh, Hop­per and oth­ers we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture).

“Being real­is­tic and dra­mat­ic, Christi­na’s World more eas­i­ly fits the shape of our mem­o­ries, our dreams, our fears and crav­ings,” says Puc­shak. “In oth­er words, it resem­bles a sto­ry.” Not only does the paint­ing’s com­bi­na­tion of the famil­iar and the unknown fire up our imag­i­na­tion, get­ting us to gen­er­ate nar­ra­tives to apply to it, it also guides our vision, tak­ing us on a jour­ney from woman to house to barn and back again. But for all its appear­ance of pas­toral rever­ie, it also has a cer­tain dark­ness about it, hint­ed at by the col­ors, which are mut­ed, reflect­ing the par­tic­u­lar aus­ter­i­ty of New Eng­land land­scapes, a com­mon image in ear­ly Amer­i­can art and thought,” as well as the body of Christi­na her­self, lift­ed from the earth only by “thin and con­tort­ed arms.”

The real Christi­na, as is now com­mon art-his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, suf­fered from a dis­ease of the ner­vous sys­tem that robbed her of her abil­i­ty to walk; her pref­er­ence of crawl­ing rather than using a wheel­chair meant that she nav­i­gat­ed her world in a much dif­fer­ent man­ner than most of us do. But even as Wyeth shows us one vari­ety of lit­tle-acknowl­edged human lim­i­ta­tion, he also shows us anoth­er vari­ety of lit­tle-acknowl­edged human abil­i­ty. Puschak sug­gests that Wyeth was “look­ing for a secret in nature,” and in the search became the tran­scen­den­tal­ist writer Ralph Wal­do Emer­son­’s “trans­par­ent eye-ball,” which con­tains noth­ing yet sees every­thing.

“He sees in the nature around him, even in the bar­ren land­scapes of new Eng­land, some­thing pro­found­ly real,” says Puschak. “As an artist, he helps us to see it too.” He also reminds us 21st cen­tu­ry urban­ites, who dwell as much in the dig­i­tal realm as the phys­i­cal one, of the “piece of us in the land, in the trees, in the sky, and a sense of whole­ness waits for us when we can remem­ber not to for­get it.” The idea may sound as unfash­ion­able as real­ism looked in Wyeth’s day, but to the artist’s own mind, he was nev­er a real­ist at all. “My peo­ple, my objects breathe in a dif­fer­ent way,” he once said. “There’s anoth­er core — an excite­ment that’s def­i­nite­ly abstract. My God, when you real­ly begin to peer into some­thing, a sim­ple object, and real­ize the pro­found mean­ing of that thing — if you have an emo­tion about it, there’s no end.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How To Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

What Makes The Night Watch Rembrandt’s Mas­ter­piece

Van Gogh’s Ugli­est Mas­ter­piece: A Break Down of His Late, Great Paint­ing, The Night Café (1888)

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Pro­vok­ing Read­ing of David’s Philo­soph­i­cal & Polit­i­cal Paint­ing

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

You Can Sleep in an Edward Hop­per Paint­ing at the Vir­ginia Muse­um of Fine Arts: Is This the Next New Muse­um Trend?

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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