The Olson House in Cushing Maine

 Andrew Wyeth’s iconic and enigmatic painting Christina’s World

Every year I attend a garden tour in Maine, and this year it was the Georges River Land Trust’s 27th annual “Gardens in the Watershed Tour“, featuring six gardens in Rockland, Owls Head, and South Thomaston.  Arriving in the area the day before the tour, I decided to visit the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, a National Historic Landmark and the house depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World above.  Although what follows does not profile a garden, I hope that you will enjoy seeing this amazing place.

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The Olson house and barn look very much the same as they were depicted by Wyeth in 1948.

Although I had considered visiting this remote spot many times, I was inspired to finally make the trip after reading A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (Harper Collins 2017).  Combining historical facts with fiction, Kline’s novel details the life of Anna Christina Olson, the woman in Wyeth’s mysterious painting.  I found the novel gripping and was amazed by the author’s ability to portray, from Christina’s point of view, her life of poverty, debilitating illness, and almost complete isolation .  For more information on A Piece of the World, read the 2017 New York Times book review by clicking here.

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The Olson House is in an area of Maine that is still quite remote and undeveloped.  The view from the house towards Maple Juice Cove probably looked much the same during Christina Olson’s lifetime.

Christiana Olson, who lived in the Olson House with her brother Alvaro until she died in 1968, was born there in 1893 and contracted a debilitating and undiagnosed illness early in her life that eventually left her unable to walk. Into this bleak existence, which is excruciatingly well-portrayed from Christina’s perspective in the book, came Andrew Wyeth in 1939.  He befriended Christina and her brother and created almost 300 paintings of the house, both inside and out, as well as its inhabitants over the course of Christina’s lifetime.  Wyeth said of the house:

I just couldn’t stay away from there. I did other pictures while I knew them but I’d always seem to gravitate back to the house. … It was Maine.

A New York Times travel piece, describing a visit to the Olson House, calls it Wyeth’s Giverny.  To read the article, “A Stroll Through Wyeth’s Giverny”, click here.

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The little garden in the middle right of the photo contains the only cultivated space on the property.

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Though the garden is small, it is certainly compelling when surrounded by the bleak presence of the house.

The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, acquired the Olson House in 1991.  Sometime after the death of Alvaro and Christina Olson in 1967 and 1968, the house was cleared of almost all its contents, so the inside of the house is as desolate as the outside.  However, I highly recommend a guided tour as our wonderful guide brought the history of the house, as well as all its inhabitants since it was built in the late 1700s, alive for us.  After the tour we were free to wander the house where photos of many of Wyeth’s paintings are displayed in the rooms where they were painted.

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While we waited for the tour to begin, we walked down this path across the street from the house to the tiny graveyard where Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth are buried.

.This stone marks the graves of both Christina and Alvaro Olson.

.This simple gravestone says Andrew Wyeth 1917 to 2009.

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The Olson house is open Wednesdays through Sundays noon to 5 pm from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus  Day.   Tours are on the hour with the last tour at 4 pm.  For more information, click here.

After your visit to remote Cushing, you can re-enter the bustle of the 21st century in the dynamic, art-filled town of Rockland and eat at two of my favorite restaurants, Primo and Cafe Miranda, pictured below from a 2015 visit.

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Cafe Miranda, 15 Oak Street, Rockland, Maine, 207-594-2034, reservations recommended, extensive menu, the coconut curry mussels are the best I have ever had, but everything is delicious!

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Primo, 2 Main Street, Rockland, Maine, 207-596-0770, make reservations months ahead (ask for Ed as your server), they grow most of their ingredients on site, a lifetime dining experience!

 

Carolyn

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13 Responses to “The Olson House in Cushing Maine”

  1. Hello Carolyn,
    I was totally gripped by the opening Wyeth painting of Christina’s World, though knew nothing about it, or the background, before reading your fascinating account. Thanks for this insight into a different world, and interesting that this area still lies largely unspoiled? Just to remote? Or other issues? Is the house just timber clad, or indeed just timber – it looks remarkably well outside, given its been unlived in for quite a while, I wonder what the annual rainfall there is…
    Best wishes to you both,
    Julian &Fiona

    • Hi Julian, so nice to hear from you. Maybe Andrew Wyeth isn’t as famous in Wales as he is here. Christina’s World is his most famous painting. I didn’t mention it in the post, but Christina would drag herself around her house and across the fields with her arms as she couldn’t walk. You would probably really enjoy the book if you are fascinated by the painting. The house is clapboard on the outside and probably lathe covered in plaster inside, typical Maine construction for that period. The area is remote, very cold in winter, and Maine is one of the least populated states in the US. Best to you both, Carolyn

  2. conifersocietytp@aol.com Says:

    Thank you, this is a very nice article.

  3. May Belle Rauch Says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  4. Susanne Russell Says:

    What a wonderful history on Christina’s World painting. Never knew the background! Now I really want to visit this house and spend more time in the Rockland-Cushing Maine area. Love all your informative posts!

    • We love Camden and Rockport too. They are next to Rockland. Swimming in Meguticook Lake and driving to the top of Mt. Battie for the incredible harbor view are highly recommended as are the restaurants Fresh and Long Grain in Camden. Haven’t found a place that I would recommend staying though. Carolyn

  5. Even without a fancy garden, this house is fascinating because of the historical significance. I think that a lack of a fancy garden is quite appropriate.
    A while ago, I wrote about a Patriot Day ‘Memorial Garden’ in Winslow in Arizona. The main complaint about the garden is that there is no garden. I really thought that the absence of distracting landscape features and plant material was very appropriate.

    • I agree. Life at the Olson house was bare bones and stark. It would inappropriate to have a fancy garden. I just wanted my readers to realize that I was departing from my usual subject matter. Carolyn

      • When I wrote about the gardenless Memorial Garden, I explained why the emptiness of the side was important. I think that made it relevant. The simplicity of the landscape at the Olson House may not be all that compatible with your typical subject matter, but is relevant to good landscape design.

  6. Lenore Goodwin Says:

    I’ve always admired Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth and have wondered about the history for many years. Thank you for your insightful story.

    • Glad you enjoyed my post. The NYT book review points out that for people who enjoy the mysterious, the book might detract from the painting. I would say the same about the tour of the Olson House: it explains what Christina is doing in the field. Personally I think the painting is still just as haunting. Carolyn

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