How connected are you to your background, how intimate with your landscape?
I love pretty things. I’m very much of the “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes” sensibility. The turn of the twentieth century is my favorite time period with its lovely style of dress. And that is probably one of the reasons why I love the art of Frank
Benson and have a copy of this painting, Summer, in my room:
This New England scene of sun-bathed softness and breezy lightness pleasantly soothes me. Even the colors match my summer decor. But… in recently looking long at the print and studying it more closely, I found that I started to like it less. There’s something about the expressions of the women in this impressionist painting that does not touch or move me at all. I cannot imagine myself in that place with them because I don’t feel like they are really present in that place themselves.
The young woman to the left is doing some kind of needlework and I do feel that that is where her attention lies. She’s looking slightly over at the younger one next to her, but her mind and her heart are somewhere else, who knows where. The younger one, dressed in blue, is sitting rather rigidly. The colors and folds of her dress are soft and her face is not perturbed or disturbed, but I have the sense that she is waiting for something real to happen or, at least, something other than what is around her. The woman standing, the one who is most prominent in the scene, certainly has the most density to her, a sense of real presence there. But, she is shading her eyes to look far off, searching, it seems, for something else. She might as well be the only one there on that grassy hillside – and I doubt that she even knows that there is grass or lovely sloping hillside beneath her feet at all.
The young woman seated to the right, dressed in gray, is, I feel, the one most connected to the scene – but still in a disconnected way. She is sitting with one arm to her side, supporting her weight on her hand as she looks over her shoulder at the other young women. I don’t have the sense that she was enjoying the day – the grassy slope with the little wildflowers fluttering in the breeze, the happy little waves lapping and licking the sandy shore below. Her attention is turned toward her companions, mildly expectant, waiting, ready to leave and go somewhere else if any one of them should make the first move. She is sitting in a practical place among the group, a pretty place even. But, she doesn’t really care if she is in that place or not.
Contrast this picture in my room with one of my favorite paintings:
This is Christina’s World, the famous work by Andrew Wyeth. And if you know the story of the girl in the painting and my own story, then you start to know why I was so deeply touched when I first saw and read about this painting in my high school art history book. Christina’s World, indeed. More on that in a minute.
Just looking at the painting, I can’t say that it’s aesthetically stunning or pleasing. I don’t have a print of it anywhere in my rooms, neither summer nor winter decor. The colors are a bit drab, except for that shabby pink dress, and it doesn’t transport me to a lovely place. However… she is there. She is most surely there in that place, truly present. The lower half of her body is prone on the browning grass, her left hand, in front of her, gripping the roots in the soil as the whole of her leans toward the distant farmhouse in the background. The gray and dingy farmhouse is her object, her aim. She knows where she is on the hardened ground, I have the sense of her intimate familiarity with that spot of earth. And even though her attention is drawn toward home, there is not the sense that she is detached from home. She’s been here before. She’s part of the landscape.
No doubt, I feel more of an emotional connection with the Christina in Christina’s World, because she has a degenerative muscle disease that has rendered her legs too weak to be useful. But, I’m not the only one to think that she is uniquely beautiful. It looks like she had been out in the fields that day, not to frolic, not to look pretty, but because of some need. And, now, she is making her way home the best way that she can. She’s not depicted passing time or waiting for something else to happen. She’s on the move, she’s making her way – with great persistence and pains. Maybe she will get caught in the coming storm before she reaches her destination, but I feel like she won’t care if her hair gets mussed and her clothes get drenched.
She knows where she is. And she knows what she’s doing.
She’s connected to her background.
The disparity between the women in these two paintings may also be due to the artists and their techniques. I learned more about them, just after my observation of Summer and remembrance of Christina’s World and just before writing this article. Benson worked from photographs and previous sketches to make Summer beautiful. Wyeth is said to have worked from memory and his own emotions at seeing his neighbor’s struggle and strength. Although Benson painted his family members, Wyeth painted something even more intimate: the human heart itself.
And that is most sublimely beautiful.
© 2016 Christina Chase
Photo credit: Frank Benson, Summer, 1909 http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1046_summer
Photo credit: Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948 http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78455
 from the song, “A Few of My Favorite Things” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music