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Art Review

Exhibits offer window into Wyeth's world

Love, friendship colored much of artist's work

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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ROCKLAND, Maine - Andrew Wyeth was falling in love when he first met Christina and Alvaro Olson. The object of his attention was 17-year-old Betsy James, who introduced him to the pair. The following year, she went on to become his wife.

So it’s hard to believe that the state Wyeth was in did not affect the affinity he immediately felt with the Olsons, an affinity that would deepen over the next 30 years, as Wyeth repeatedly drew and painted the Olsons and their saltwater farmhouse in Maine.

Wyeth turned 22 the day he met both Betsy and the Olsons. He was staying that summer at a house his father, the artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, had bought almost 20 years before.

On his birthday, Andrew went to visit an artist he knew who lived nearby, Merle James. When James’s daughter Betsy opened the door, Wyeth - struck by her beauty, and casting about, perhaps, for a chance to spend time with her - mentioned he had never seen the town of Cushing, which was just across the river.

That was when Betsy suggested a visit to the Olsons.

Wyeth made his first sketch of the Olson house that day, waiting by his station wagon as Betsy went up to their front door. He went on to depict the house, its inhabitants, and their surrounding land hundreds of times.

All this is recounted (and not for the first time - these events are the stuff of legend) in a catalog essay by Michael K. Komanecky, chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum, on the occasion of an exhibition called “Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World and the Olson House.’’

The show, in the Farnsworth’s Wyeth Center, consists of almost 40 works of art sent to Maine by the Japanese collector Katsushige Susaki and his private museum, the Marunuma Art Park in Asaka City. It’s an intimate exhibition of (mostly) studies in watercolor and pencil, rounded out by a handful of stunning Wyeths from the Farnsworth’s own collection.

The show is complemented by a separate display, in the museum’s main building, of dozens more Wyeths from the Farnsworth’s permanent collection, some of them grouped under the title “The Road to Olson House.’’

The exhibition commemorates the 20th anniversary of John and Lee Adams Sculley’s gift of the Olson House to the Farnsworth. The gift came after many years of complex negotiations and acrimonious legal maneuvers, which saw the house renovated, turned into a Wyeth museum, and then converted back into a private summer house, before falling under the auspices of the museum, which has established it as a popular pilgrimage site.

Even as the Farnsworth celebrates its rich connections with Wyeth, the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, has mounted an exhibition offering an unusually intimate glimpse into the Wyeth family - not just Andrew, but his artist son Jamie and granddaughter Victoria.

The show includes drawings, watercolors, and private letters - some of them charmingly illustrated - from the collection of Victoria Browning Wyeth. Many have never previously been exhibited.

All these exhibitions, but particularly the Farnsworth’s main show, renewed my admiration for Andrew Wyeth’s skills, his integrity, his commitment. Even more, they subdued doubts I had harbored about the originality of his accomplishments, making those doubts seem either unjust or simply irrelevant.

I came away moved by the plainspoken beauty of Wyeth’s vision, and slightly ashamed of my earlier description of him, in these pages, shortly after his death, as a talented artist who also “peddled in kitsch.’’

The most famous picture to come out of Wyeth’s association with the Olsons is also one of the most famous pictures ever produced by an American. It’s called “Christina’s World,’’ and it was painted in 1948, almost 10 years into Wyeth’s 30-year relationship with the Olsons.

Alvaro and Christina were brother and sister who had inherited the house from their parents in 1935. Christina suffered from an unknown illness which rendered her legs and hands almost useless, impeding her movements and eventually reducing her to crawling.

Alvaro, who had been a fisherman and seaman, took on the responsibility of caring for her. Their life was a hardscrabble one: Their food came from their land - vegetables, fruit, and livestock - and they sold what little was left over.

From the outside, the Olson house as depicted by Wyeth had a weathered and washed-clean severity. The inside, however, was dirty, and filled with the stench of Christina’s urine: Her condition meant that she often failed to make it to the primitive toilet in the shed, or even a bedpan, and was forced to go wherever she was.

None of this deterred Wyeth, who grew to admire the Olsons and relish their company.

On that day in May, 1948, Wyeth was inside the house on the third floor when he caught sight of Christina dragging herself along on the grassy field toward the cove. He resolved that evening to make a painting of the scene.

The finished work, which caused Wyeth’s already established reputation to skyrocket, may be marred by a stiffness missing from the studies (Wyeth himself believed it an “absolute flat tire’’). But this stiffness only adds to the hyper-real yet oddly muted atmosphere that makes it so cinematic and uncanny.

“Christina’s World’’ was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York the year after it was painted, and remains one of the most popular exhibits in that museum.

Concerns about its condition (it was painted in tempera) prevented its inclusion in the Farnsworth show. But Susaki, who focuses his collection on studies, believing that “those who aspire to be painters learn more from studies than from completed works,’’ agreed to lend seven studies relating to “Christina’s World.’’

These include a sheet with a tangle of squiggles suggesting Christina’s unusual pose; several fastidious pencil studies of her emaciated arm and hand; a gridded sketch of the entire scene, and a study, worked up in watercolor, of Christina, more upright and dignified than in the finished painting, in her pink dress.

Other works combine to conjure a pungent sense of place. We see the house from inside and out, and get a strong sense of the daily lives of the Olson siblings.

“Breakfast at Olsons,’’ from 1967, depicts the single-story annex containing the kitchen from a poignant distance. A lone figure is visible in silhouette against light that skewers the building after entering in through an opposite window.

Wyeth had a flair for tensions created by juxtapositions not just of light and dark but of near and far, and of transparently smooth and opaquely textured.

You see it in “Grain Bag,’’ from 1959, the remarkably evocative “Wood Stove Study,’’ from 1962, and “Beans Drying,’’ from 1968, where the wrinkled paper interacts with the textures of the big, bean-containing bag and the wall behind to create optical effects that border on tromp l’oeil. And you see it in the superb “Olson House,’’ 1966, which shows one side of the house from within the dark interior of the shed.

One particularly fine work is called “Alvaro and Christina,’’ but it contains no figures. It was painted after the Olsons’ deaths (they died within a month of each other in 1967-68), and was intended as a tribute to both the Olsons and their house.

Alvaro is symbolically represented by a tub and bucket - “signs,’’ writes Komanecky, “of his never-ending work’’ - and Christina by the vivid blue door that led into the kitchen where she spent so much of her time.

Technically (the light! the textures! the composition!), it’s a tour de force. But of course, given everything that had come before, it transcends virtuosic technique.

The show at Bates College Museum of Art is worth catching. It contains one well known work - a sweetly tranquil 1965 watercolor showing Wyeth’s dog asleep on a neatly made bed.

But most of the rest of the works are drawings. There’s a fine portrait in pencil of Jane Wyeth, Andrew’s daughter-in-law, and several pencil studies of Helga Testorf, the blonde neighbor of Wyeth whom he repeatedly painted in the 1970s and ’80s.

Jamie Wyeth is represented by, among other works, a humorous rendering of a chortling pig casting a huge shadow.

The presence of several fondly inscribed books - among them a copy of “Treasure Island’’ illustrated by N.C. Wyeth - helps humanize the image of an artist (Andrew) who could seem starchy and forbidding even at his most intimate.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

ANDREW WYETH, CHRISTINA’S WORLD AND THE OLSON HOUSE

At: Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine. Through Oct. 30. 207-596-6457. www.farnsworthmuseum.org.

ANDREW AND JAMIE WYETH: Selections From the Collection of Victoria Browning Wyeth

At: Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine. Through Oct. 2. 207-786-6158. www.bates.edu/museum.xml