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A New Perspective on Andrew Wyeth’s Weather Side

/ November 6, 2019

During a recent vacation in Maine, I detoured off U.S. 1 to visit the Olson House, which is now a pilgrimage site for admirers of the painter Andrew Wyeth. Built by a ship captain in the late 18th century, the house sits at the end of a long road, high on a grassy hill overlooking the estuary of the St. George River. 

The house was home to Christina Olson, a descendant of the ship captain and Wyeth’s preeminent muse (think Christina’s World), until her death in 1968. Christina was a gruff country woman whose body was mangled by an undiagnosed illness that left her legs useless. Too proud to use a wheelchair, she dragged herself from room to room and across the unkempt yard.

Enthralled by her stubborn dignity, Wyeth painted Christina numerous times. He saw in her face and broken body the indomitable spirit of Maine. And he saw the Olson House, itself broken and decayed, as haunted by the specters of past and present lives: “The world of New England is in that house—spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic—dry bones” (quoted in Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, New York: Harper Collins, 1996).

Wyeth painted the exterior of the Olson House only twice—three times if you count Christina’s World). The only full portrait is Weather Side, on view in the galleries and a promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight. Completed in 1965, it depicts the eastward, sea-facing or “weather side” of the house. Judged by the innumerable sketches he made in preparation for the painting, Weather Side seems to have worried Wyeth more than any other painting. Intent on getting every part right, he analyzed every quirk: the bedsheet stuffed in broken window, the jerry-rigged system for collecting rainwater, the tin water pail left inexplicably in the grass. Everything was carefully planned, most especially the choice of viewpoint.

I visited the Olson House to test a hypothesis. As depicted in Weather Side, the house conveys a looming, almost Gothic presence. (Wyeth described it as “a tombstone.”) The effect is partly attributable to the viewer’s low vantage point. But I wanted to check how low. I wanted to see if Wyeth might have chosen to paint the Olson House from the perspective of its crippled inhabitant.

It took no time to locate the exact spot where the artist sketched the composition for Weather Side. (He painted the final tempera in his studio.) To match the exact angle of view, I sat on the grass. From this vantage the house and the painting clicked together.

Of course, Wyeth may simply have liked the creepier aspect of the house when seen from such a low angle. He may have decided to sit on the grass with his sketch pad because it was easier than borrowing a stool. But I think it just as likely that the artist wanted us to see Christina’s house with Christina’s eyes.

John Coffey
John Coffey, Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art emeritus, Curator of Judaic Art emeritus

2 thoughts on “A New Perspective on Andrew Wyeth’s Weather Side”

  1. This has possessed/haunted me with its aesthetic splendor since the first time I saw a print of it. In person I stand mesmerized at the uncanny painterly mastery of Wyeth’s hand. I visit it conscientiously every time I come to the Museum…and since I live in Raleigh, I come often.

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