The Olson House Beyond Wyeth’s Brushstroke: Exploring a Maine Art Legacy

Andrew Wyeth, Woodstove, 1962, Drybrush watercolor on paper, 23 1/2 x 34 1/2 inches, Museum Purchase, 1962.1266. © 2023 Wyeth Foundation for American Art / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

With a mission to celebrate the role of Maine in American art, the Farnsworth Art Museum shows many of the best and most-loved works by Maine artists and also the unique culture, traditions and lifestyles of the people who inhabit this sublimely beautiful yet rugged land.

One of the best representations of the traditional saltwater farming in Maine can be found at the Olson House, located just a short drive from our downtown Rockland museum.

This house, and the family that lived and worked there, provided the inspiration and backdrop for many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and drawings, including one of his most well-known works, and one of the most famous paintings in American history, “Christina’s World.”

Christina’s World Print, Image size 27″ x 18″

Christina Olsen contracted a neurodegenerative disorder that affected her mobility when she was a child and lost the ability to walk by the time she was in her late 20s. But no wheels or metal frames could contain Christina’s spirit. She choose to get around by propelling herself with her arms, refusing wheelchairs or crutches.

Looking out the window from his studio on the second floor of the Olson House one summer day in 1948, Wyeth saw Christina Olson crawling in the field, gazing at the farmhouse — the inspiration for this famous painting.

Although she looks like she is resting, lying peacefully on the grass, you can see that her torso is propped on her arms, hinting at a rather strangely alert position.

Her unwavering spirit, determination, and resilience serve as inspiration to many. Despite her physical limitations, she sparks hope to others to conquer their own challenges and redefine their limitations. Wyeth once said, “She rules like a queen” and her voice depicts it. It is firm and lucid, without self-pity, and with a force of a character.

Visitors can experience a leisurely self-guided walking tour of the buildings and grounds where the artist worked and spent much of his time over a period of three decades.

Andrew Wyeth and the Olsen Family

In the summer of 1939, Wyeth met the young woman who would become his wife, Betsy James. She, in turn, introduced Andrew to siblings Alvaro and Christina Olson, whom she had become close friends with during childhood summers spent in the neighborhood. After their marriage less than a year later, the friendship between the Wyeths and the Olsons continued and grew stronger, as the couple returned each summer for many years after.

Wyeth found inspiration in the everyday lives of the Olsons and the rustic pastoral land where they worked and lived, which he considered to be the quintessential expression of the authentic New England, and specifically Maine, experience. He once commented, “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 the house … It was Maine.”

Life on the Olson Farm Captured on Canvas

The Olsons lived the typical life of a Maine saltwater farm family. Alvaro spent his days plowing and tending his fields and crops, including an abundance of blueberries, potatoes, peas and hay. He also raised chickens and pigs. Produce from the farm was sold in town to provide a modest income for the siblings. Christina maintained the household, cooked, baked, sewed, and tended small vegetable and flower gardens. Both participated in the usual daily chores required to maintain a working farm.

Between 1938 and 1968, the Olson House provided Andrew Wyeth with subjects for over 300 paintings and drawings, including “Alvaro’s Hayrack” (1958),“Wood Stove” (1962), “Alvaro and Christina” (1968), and “Christina with Beads” (1947), all of which can be viewed in the Olson House gallery.

Important Dates in the History of the Olson House

  • 1806: The original house is built by the Hathorn Family.
  • 1865: Significant alterations are completed by Samuel Hathorn.
  • 1892: The marriage of Katie Hathorn and John Olson produces two children, Christina and Alvaro, who inherit the house.
  • 1938-1968: The period of Andrew Wyeth’s friendship with the Olsons and work at the Olson House.
  • 1995: Olson House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • 2011: Olson House is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
  • 1991: The Farnsworth Art Museum acquires the property.
  • 1992: The museum opens the Olson House to the public.

Currently, self-guided walking tours of the Olson House grounds are available to the public while the house is undergoing renovations. You can also explore the Olson House any time with this stunning 3D Virtual tour!

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