In 1949 The Museum of Modern Art acquired a modest-sized landscape painting from the Macbeth Gallery on 57th Street in New York City for $1,800—then considered a hefty sum for an artwork. The painting would go on to become one of the most recognized images in American art, simultaneously well-loved and scorned, and is now the subject of Wyeth: Christina’s World, the latest book in the MoMA One on One series which provides an in-depth look at some of the most significant artworks in the Museum’s collection.
Christina’s World (1948) is a familiar image in popular culture but upon closer examination, the scene can be quite mysterious. Who is the young woman in the field, and what is she thinking as she stares off into the distance? Curator Laura Hoptman’s richly illustrated essay revisits the genesis of the painting to place it within the context of Wyeth’s life and career. Curiously, the artist depicted only two locations in his paintings over the course of his 70-year career: Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he was born, and South Cushing, Maine, where his wife Betsy’s family owned a home. And within these two locations, he focused mainly on two families, the Kuerners in Chadds Ford and the Olsons in South Cushing. Anna Christina Olson of South Cushing, who had a degenerative muscle condition that cost her the use of her legs by her early 30s, was the inspiration for Wyeth’s most famous painting.
Around the time he produced Christina’s World, Wyeth was highly praised by artists such as Elaine de Kooning for the exacting realism of his paintings, but as the art world moved on to Abstract Expressionism and eventually to Pop art, he never changed the style of his art, drawing negative backlash for being too conservative and provincial. The book examines the heated debates about kitsch and art-world elitism that continue to surround Wyeth’s work today, long after the artist’s death in 2009.