15 Things You Might Not Know About Christina’s World

Who is the woman in Andrew Wyeth's striking painting Christina's World, and why is she sprawled in a field, looking longingly toward a far-off farmhouse? For decades, these questions have drawn in viewers, but the true story behind Christina's World makes the 1948 painting even more intriguing. 

1. There Was a real Christina. 

The 31-year-old Wyeth modeled the painting's frail-looking brunette after his neighbor in South Cushing, Maine. Anna Christina Olson suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that prevented her from walking. Rather than using a wheelchair, Olson crawled around her home and the surrounding grounds, as seen in Christina's World

2. Olson's spirit inspired Wyeth's most popular piece. 

The neighbors first met in 1939 when Wyeth was just 22 and courting 17-year-old Betsy James, who would later become his wife and muse. It was James who introduced to Wyeth to the 45-year-old Olson, kicking off a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. The sight of Olson picking blueberries while crawling through her fields “like a crab on a New England shore” inspired Wyeth to paint Christina’s World

"The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless," he wrote. "If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do." 

3. Pages and pages of sketches preceded the painting. 

Wyeth was obsessed with getting the position of Christina’s arms and hands just right. Today these sketches are tenderly preserved for posterity. 

4. Olson was not the painting's only model. 

The concept, title, pink dress, and slim limbs were modeled after Olson, who was in her mid-50s when Christina's World was created. But Wyeth asked his then 26-year-old wife to sit in as a model for the head and torso. 

5. Christina's World was one of several paintings Wyeth did of Olson.

She was a recurring muse and model for Wyeth, captured in paintings like Miss Olson, Christina Olson, and Anna Christina. 

6. Christina's World was met with little fanfare. 

Wyeth’s timing wasn’t quite right. He finished the painting in 1948, which meant the magical realism masterpiece debuted at a time when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage. 

7. Wyeth was initially unhappy with Christina's World. 

Though it would become his best-known work and an icon of American art, Christina's World was described by Wyeth as “a complete flat tire” when he sent it off to the Macbeth Gallery for a show in 1948. He also wondered if the painting would have been improved if he “painted just that field and have you sense Christina without her being there.”

8. Nonetheless, Christina's World found a major supporter. 

Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, was so taken with Wyeth’s work that he purchased Christina's World for $1800. While the early critical reception was lukewarm to cool, the painting's prestigious position at MoMA fortified its reputation. Today it’s one of the museum's most admired exhibits. 

9. Christina's World's place in the art pantheon is still a matter of debate. 

Though undeniably iconic, the painting has long been undermined by vocal detractors. Art historians have often snubbed Wyeth's works in their surveys, and some naysayers have attacked the painting's widespread popularity, deriding it as "a mandatory dorm room poster." Meanwhile, critics have chastised Wyeth's attention on Olson's infirmity and characterized it as exploitation. Still others claim there was no art in rendering realistic imagery in paint. 

10. Christina's World was Olson's favorite Wyeth painting. 

One person who didn’t object to Wyeth’s depiction of Olson was Olson. In her book about her husband's work, Betsy James Wyeth recounts a conversation she had with Olson about the piece, writing:

Christina's World remained her favorite to the end. Once when I asked her why, she simply smiled and said, 'You know pink is my favorite color.' 'But you're wearing a flowered pink dress in Miss Olson and holding a kitten. I thought you loved kittens.' 'Course I do, but in the other one Andy put me where he knew I wanted to be. Now that I can't be there anymore, all I do is think of that picture and I'm there.' 

11. Christina's World's farmhouse is a real place.

It was Olson's home, which she shared with her younger brother, Alvaro. But Wyeth took some liberties with its architecture and surrounding landscape to better emphasize the scope of Christina's journey.

12. Today the farmhouse is a national landmark. 

The Olson house has won comparisons to Monet's garden at Giverny because of the plethora of paintings and sketches it inspired. In the 30 years from their first meeting to Christina's death, Wyeth created over 300 works at the Olson house, thanks to the Olsons allowing him to use their home as his studio. Explaining the house's hold on him, Wyeth said, "In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul almost. To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life." 

For all this, the Olson House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011. As part of the Farnsworth Museum, you’ll be able to visit the Olson house starting on Memorial Day weekend, 2016. Until then, the house is closed for vital infrastructure upgrades.

13. Christina's World made Olson famous. 

Shortly after the painting made its MoMA debut, one overzealous admirer walked into Olson's home, came upon her resting, and asked for an autograph. Twenty years later, her death made national news, reviving interest in Christina's World

14. MoMA has only loaned out Christina's World once. 

Following Wyeth's death in 2009 at the age of 91, the museum allowed Christina's World to visit its creator's birthplace, Chadds Ford, Penn., where the Brandywine River Museum exhibited the polarizing painting for two days in memorial before returning it to New York.  

15. Wyeth is buried near his painting's birthplace.

Down the hill from the Olson house lies a cemetery, where Andrew Wyeth's grave can be found in the family plot of Alvaro and Anna Christina Olson. Wyeth's tombstone faces up toward the house at an angle that closely resembles that of Christina's World. According to his surviving family, it was his final wish "to be with Christina."

Art

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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