Last summer I took a wrong turn by the prison in Thomaston, Maine, bumped down a pebble road, and landed smack inside a painting.
Or so it seemed.
I had reached the remote town of Cushing. A stark, weather-beaten farmhouse sat on a grassy rise overlooking the Georges River and the distant sea. The grass was emerald green and a row of pines fringed the horizon, but all the other details were the same. This was the scene from Andrew Wyeth's haunting Christina's World. Stepping from my car, I half expected to see the crippled young Christina Olson, in a pale pink dress, crawling through the grass.
The Olson Home was built in the 1700s by the Hathornes, a seafaring family. In 1871, Captain Samuel Hathorne IV replaced the old hip roof with a pitched roof and added several bedrooms on the third floor. A half century later, his descendants, the Olsons, invited the young Andrew Wyeth to use one of the upstairs rooms as a part-time studio.
"I just couldn't stay away from there," Wyeth once remarked. "It was Maine."
When I entered the house, the scent of lilac from the bushes outside followed me like a ghost. The rooms were bare -- the beds and chairs had been removed. Even the woodstoves that supplied the only source of heat were gone. An easel marked the spot where Wyeth worked.
Wyeth used his upstairs studio for 30 years, and featured the house in many paintings and lithographs. He captured stark rooms, austere mantels, and somber rooftop views.
Everyone knows that old houses take on the personalities of their owners, but Wyeth knew something more. "In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul, almost," he said years later. "To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life."
Christina Olson died in 1969. She had lived in the house her entire life. Neighbors say she had no idea that her small world had become famous.
Over the next twenty years, the house changed hands several times. For awhile there was nervous speculation that it would become yet another bed and breakfast inn. One owner, movie mogul Joseph Levine, brought in Hollywood set builders to "authenticate" the place by spraying its rooms with fake cobwebs and weathering the facade so it resembled the building Wyeth painted. Finally, the house sold to John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer Inc., and Lee Adams Sculley. In 1991 they gave it to the Farnsworth Art Museum in nearby Rockland.
During the spring, summer, and fall you can tour the humble farmhouse that haunted the famous American painter. Stop at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine for a map and you won't even have to get lost to discover Wyeth's world.