Currently owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Olson House is intimately linked with famed American artist, Andrew Wyeth. Parts of the saltwater farmhouse date back to the late 18th century and Captain Samuel Hathorn II. The house then went through a major renovation in 1871. It was eventually inherited by siblings, Christina and Alvaro Olson, in 1929. The Olsons were introduced to Andrew Wyeth by Wyeth’s future wife, Betsy James, in 1939 while the Wyeth family vacationed in Maine. Thus began a long relationship between Wyeth and the Olsons that would lead to the production of almost 300 works by Wyeth of the Olsons and their farm, to include his most famous work, "Christina’s World." The house is open to the public, except in winter, and is used by the Farnsworth to display various works by Wyeth and other artists. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.
Backstory and Context
Sometime between 1780 and 1800, a sea captain named Samuel Hathorn II built a wood-framed, clapboard farmhouse on a small peninsula along the coast of Maine at the base of what is now known as Burton Point. The house and farm passed through the Hathorn family, largely unchanged, until Captain Samuel Hathorn IV significantly altered the home by replacing its hip roof with a steeply pitched one. This allowed Hathorn to add several bedrooms on the newly expanded third floor which he opened to boarders. In 1892, sailor John Olson met the 34-year-old Katie Hathorn and her widowed mother, Tryphene, and the home switched familial hands when the two married soon after. Katie and John Olson had four children, to include Alvaro and Christina, who inherited the property in 1929.
What brought Andrew Wyeth, his future wife, Betsy James, and the Olson siblings together appears to have been an appreciation for the Maine coast, especially during the summer months. The Wyeth family spent their summers in Cushing as did the James family. It was here that Wyeth met James in 1939 and the two would marry the next year, but not before James introduced Wyeth to the Olsons and their farm. By this time, Wyeth, born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in 1917, was an accomplished artist taught largely by his father, Newell Convers Wyeth. He gradually developed a close relationship with the Olsons and soon had free-run of the house and farm during his stays in Maine, to include a third-floor studio. The relationship Wyeth developed with the Olsons is reminiscent of the one he fostered with the Kuerner family back in Chadds Ford. The Kuerner Farm has also been designated a National Historic Landmark for its association with Wyeth.
Over the next two decades, Wyeth returned to the Olson farm again and again, painting and drawing prolifically until Christina died in 1968. Some of his more famous works included his 1939 Olson House and Wind from the Sea which he produced in 1947. However, his most famous work produced at the farm was Christina’s World. The tempera work appears, at first glance, to show a young woman reclining in a barren field looking up a hill at an equally barren farmhouse and barn. The woman is the 55-year-old Christina Olson who had lost the use of her legs from what is thought to be a degenerative motor neurothapy known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Wyeth observed Christina, who eschewed the use of a wheelchair, crawling through the field towards her home from his studio window. The painting went on to become Wyeth’s best-known work and is currently owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
As for the Olson House, after Christina passed in 1968, it was purchased by movie director, Joseph E. Levine, an admirer of Wyeth, who operated the house as a museum for a few years in the early 1970s. He considered donating it to the state in 1974, but decided against it as he feared the state of Maine lacked the funds and/or willpower to properly maintain it. The property was then purchased by Apple Inc. CEO, John Sculley, who eventually donated it to the Farnsworth Art Museum in 1991. The Farnsworth restored the house to how it appeared in the late 1940s when Wyeth, who passed in 2009, painted Christina’s World. It now opens the house to the public from Memorial Weekend through Columbus Day weekend and uses it to display Wyeth’s works in the home where they were created.
Holson, Laura. "A Stroll Through Wyeth's Giverny." New York Times. August 11, 2011. Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/travel/the-farmhouse-of-wyeths-christinas-world.html
Mullen, Shannon. "The Pilgrims Who Visit the House in Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." The New Yorker. May 8, 2019. Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-pilgrims-who-visit-the-house-in-andrew-wyeths-christinas-world
Harpaz, Beth. "In old Maine farmhouse, the real Christina's World." San Diego Union-Tribune. July 15, 2011. Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-in-old-maine-farmhouse-the-real-christinas-world-2011jul15-story.html
"A Brief History of the Hathorn/Olson house." maine.gov Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.maine.gov/doe/sites/maine.gov.doe/files/inline-files/history-olson-house.pdf