Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.
There was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.
She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.
It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?