Into the Painting with Christina Baker Kline
A painting in which an artist poured his or her soul into often carries with it a certain power, almost imperceptible to those who pay attention. Once in a while, we come across the kind of painting that evokes something within us, that makes study every inch of its surface and wonder what story led to its creation, what tales the people inside have to say. Any work of art can have an effect on a single person, but very few have managed to achieve that on a grandiose scale, becoming immortalized and celebrated in the annals of art history for eons to come. Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth is one such painting, eventually perceived as an iconic and mysterious portrayal of the titular Christina. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can easily find it on Google, and I do recommend doing so before diving into Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World .
What exactly does the painting have to do with the book? Well, what Kline brings us in her book is a fictionalized account of Christina Olson’s life, the muse behind the great painting that turned innumerable heads, eventually becoming one of the most popular artworks of the twentieth century. The author takes us into the heart of a small farmstead in Cushing, Maine, where Christina lives surrounded by her brothers. Being the only daughter and of fragile health on top of that, it seemed that her life was destined to be nothing but mundane and home-bound, to end on the little farm it began with no one being the wiser. We are presented with a complete portrayal of her life as well as her family, and how she ultimately made the acquaintance of Wyeth to become his first great source of inspiration.
A World of Labels
First off, while this is indeed a work of fiction that undoubtedly makes a few additions that stem from the realm of imagination, I feel the need to say that most of it is indeed based on facts. The things that we do know have not suffered from any kind of distortion and Christina Baker Kline really ensured that the true story is told in her work. As such, one can treat it as a rough biography, one centred on a kind of individual the world can forget about, even while being acquainted with the timeless work she is at least in part responsible for. In that respect, I feel that the book is a true masterpiece and presents a very compelling human being with a relatively tragic existence, going along paths many of us might have stumbled down as well.
I feel like the author made a point of demonstrating how Christina had to fight and overcome the many labels life had given her, how she was always perceived in the eyes of others. A sickly child, a dutiful daughter, an unmarried woman… these are designations that accompanied her throughout her life and pushed her to make difficult decisions that would sometimes take more away from her than they would give. We are offered an extremely intimate examination of Christina’s internal world, her motivations, aspirations, the effects of others’ derision towards her… and consequently, we also get a rather interesting (though less profound) illustration of the family that surrounded her. While ultimately this is an uplifting tale, I want to get it out there that it retains a strong flair of realism, in the sense that in life, happy endings for everyone are far from guaranteed.
The Birth of a Timeless Legacy
In my opinion, the truly interesting part of the story that really captivated me was Christina’s acquaintance with Andrew and how their relation developed over time. The artist often has a special relation with his or her muse, one that can transcend friendship, romance and sexuality. There is something truly spiritual about the way in which they find inspiration in each other and how they essentially evolve thanks the other.
Before Christina met Andrew, she was a woman struggling to find a place in the world, a canvas that had yet to be completed. The latter, on the other hand, was as much of a nobody as she was, for all intents and purposes, directionless to a wide extent. Through his vision Christina was transformed in the eyes of all into a very complex woman with layers upon layers of emotional and spiritual sophistication, someone who had known joy, pain, pride, regret and suffering. And through Christina, Andrew became one of the most accomplished artists of his time.
This is all skillfully complemented by Kline’s literary prowess and her vivid descriptions that are akin to paintings themselves. Whatever setting she describes, we instantly feel transported to it, and I feel that’s mainly because she knows how to properly paint a picture using all the senses a human being has it their disposal.
The Final Verdict
To bring this show to a close, I’d like to say that A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is a rather surprising work of historical fiction, exploring a very specific segment in the world of art and succeeding in every way. I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in historical fiction revolving around the world of art, and of course to anyone who is fascinated by the legendary painting itself.
Christina Baker Kline is an American novelist, editor and essayist, penning many highly-touted works such as Sweet Water and Orphan Train. During her life she was always involved in the world of books one way or the other (being passionate about them), and was even a teacher of creative writing and literature at a university level