A Visit to The Olson House: Maine Through the Eyes of Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth is one of America’s most prolific and successful artists of our time. He’s also, surprisingly to me, one of the most critically panned. I first learned of him as a college student in rural eastern Pennsylvania, where Wyeth also lived and painted so many of his famous works. To me, his body of work epitomized the grayness of Pennsylvania in wintertime when the cold drains the color from the landscape, and the snow and ice finish it off. The houses and fieldstone barns of places like the Kuerner farm in the Brandywine Valley were a favorite subject and he created some of his most famous paintings there like Trodden Weed (1951), Evening at Kuerners (1970) and countless others.
It was also in college when I fell in love with Christina’s World. The girl across the hall from me had an oversized poster of it plastered on her wall, like a window to some faraway world, and I’d gravitate between a feeling of calm and an unsettling desire to escape whenever I’d look at it. There was something about that woman reclining in the field. As a young student, the painting moved me — enough for me to notice, and continue to stare.
The Olson House
Fast forward to Maine around 1995 where we’d gone summer camping in South Thomaston near Rockland for several years. One particularly beautiful day on our way to scout parts of the area we’d never seen before, we came upon a stark but beautiful old cedar-shingled house on a hill overlooking a cove at the water’s edge. There were people coming and going from the house for what appeared to be an Open House? A sign out front read Olson House, and we wandered in behind them to check out the real estate scene in the tiny hamlet of Cushing. Imagine our surprise as the light went off in our heads when a tour guide told us the history of the house.
Christina’s World, painted in 1948 and now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is one of Andrew Wyeth’s masterpieces, perhaps his most recognizable work, and the one painting that draws some of his most vocal critics for various reasons. It has ironically been called “a mandatory dorm room poster”, derided as insulting and exploitative to persons with disabilities, and even parodied by Mad Magazine. But to those who love it, a visit to the Olson House in Maine is a must — not just a memorable excursion or a nice ride in the country. Seeing the homestead that was home to Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro, hearing the historic details, and gazing across that hay field brings new life and a poignant perspective to one of the most important works of art Wyeth ever created. The Olson House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, and today is part of the renowned Farnsworth Museum — together they’re two of the most interesting things to do in Rockland, Maine for Wyeth fans and art lovers.
The Hathorn-Olson House was built in the late 1700s by Captain Samuel Hathorn II (1750) though it was altered in 1871 by his grandson who added several upper floor bedrooms and a steep pitched roof. The home sits on Hathorn Point in Cushing bordered by the St. George River and Maple Juice Cove and leads out to Muscongus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1892, when an early freeze forced a young sailor named John Olson ashore, he met Katie Hathorn and her mother who lived in the house. At 34, Katie was considered to be destined for spinsterhood, but his visit changed all that. They had two children in their marriage, Alvaro and Anna Christina, who inherited the property in 1929.
As a child Christina Olson had been afflicted with a degenerative muscular disease once thought to be the result of polio, but now believed to have been Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disorder. The disease gradually crippled her body and left her paralyzed from the waist down. She shunned the use of a wheelchair, preferring instead to crawl around the house and property, dragging herself up and down the stairs. Remarkably, she would even regularly visit her family’s gravesite across the road at the bottom of the hill overlooking the cove.
Although Andrew Wyeth was originally from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Maine was home to his wife Betsy, and it was here at the Olson House where they first met in 1939. Betsy and her family were friends and neighbors of Christina and Alvaro Olson, and Andrew was immediately taken with them and the property. It was the sight of Christina crawling through the fields picking blueberries “like a crab on a New England shore” that inspired him to paint Christina’s World. For 30 years, Andrew and Betsy summered in Maine, and maintained a close friendship with the Olsons. Andrew used an upstairs room in the house as a studio and featured Christina, Alvaro, and the house in many paintings and lithographs. Throughout his lifetime he painted and sketched in many mediums but his unique style bears a signature austere look and feel, as if haunted by ghosts of the Pennsylvania countryside and coastal Maine.
Olson House Tours
Olson House, Cushing Maine - 384 Hathorn Point Road
Today, the home is listed on the National Historic Register. Wyeth fans and art lovers can tour the Olson House to learn the history of the family, the home, and the connection to Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. We visited the house again after the Maine windjammer cruise we took recently from nearby Rockland, and it was even better taking a guided tour — the expertise and nuance added by our docent made all the difference. The red geraniums Christina adored still bloom inside the kitchen near the original Glenwood stove. Alvaro’s dingy still rests in the loft of the attached barn, and you can wander through the home at your leisure. The house is empty but for a few pieces of furniture, the stove, and other small items. But we were most struck by the unique way in which the tour is set up — offering visitors Wyeth’s view from every room and an interpretive panel on his resulting work, or a photo of him with Christina and Alvaro nearby.
The Olson House is open to the public from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend, Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 pm with tours on the hour. The last tour begins at 4 pm. On Thursdays, the 4 pm tour is replaced by a special talk by David Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth’s nephew.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have Nancy as your docent. Her tour was so detailed and captivating — akin to her channeling the many ghosts that no doubt have settled in over the years!
The Olson House is not wheelchair accessible and parking is limited.
Please respect the rights of private property owners by restricting your visit to the Olson House site only. The barn, field and cemetery across the road are private property not owned by the museum.
Final Resting Place
In addition to the Olson and Hathorn families, the property is also the final resting place of Andrew Wyeth, a testament to his love of Maine, the Olsons, and the ties that bind the Wyeth family there. You’ll see his grave stone first as you reach the bottom of the hill, made from smooth bluestone and void of any epitaph — as austere as the art he created.
The cemetery property is across the street from the house and down the hill from the house itself — it is private property and not owned by the Museum. You may visit the cemetery, though please be respectful and stick to the mowed paths down to the water.