I have seen reproductions and photos of Andrew Wyeth’s work, “Christina’s World,” for many years, but did not know how it came to be. When I recently heard the story behind the painting I was dumbstruck.
It turns out the inspiration for the work was a glimpse through one of the upstairs windows of the farmhouse. Wyeth was visiting a young woman whom he would later marry and they had gone to Christina’s house to see her. He was upstairs, looked out the window, and saw Christina in the field. She was on her way back to the house from either the garden or the family burial plot, depending on which account you’re reading, and was on the ground because she was unable to walk. She wasn’t lying on the earth looking up at the house; she was crawling toward it. When I read that, everything about the picture changed for me; in particular, the distance to the house seemed much longer.
Christina and her brother, so the story goes, were struggling to stay in the family home for as long as they could. The fact that she had to crawl wherever she went was not sufficient reason to make her leave home. Wyeth could have chosen to visually emphasize her disability and opted not to, which in my mind makes a much more powerful statement. As does the title, which I now see in a number of different ways. I can’t go back to seeing the picture the way I did before, but knowing the whole story behind the painting makes it a more powerful piece for me.
I’m reminded of the story I was told as a child of a woman driving by a garden where a man sat in a chair tending the plants. Her initial thought was “how lazy can you get, taking a chair to the garden?” until she turned the corner and saw him from a different angle, his right leg missing from the knee down, a crutch on the ground beside the chair.
The rest of the story, as the radio personality Paul Harvey used to make a cornerstone of his broadcasts, uncovers layers of complexity which are sometimes delightful and sometimes disturbing. Knowing that a favorite recording was done in one take rather than multiple spliced together segments, for instance, or finding out that “God Bless America,” now a classic piece of American music, was originally a subject of controversy and prejudice because its composer Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant, sheds new light on things we thought we knew.
Too often, I’m afraid, we see the wheelchair, hear the accent, see the political bumper sticker, notice the torn, dirty clothes, and decide we know what’s going on in a particular person’s world. We should all know by now that life is immeasurably more complex than that.