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Spotting pathology: realist painting of a woman in a field

In the latest in our series looking at potential medical issues in famous works of art, Dr Keith Hopcroft considers Christina’s World by US artist Andrew Wyeth

At first glance, the painting seems to show a bucolic scene with a young woman enjoying a serene rest in a field with an outlook of picturesque buildings. The reality is rather different. She is not resting, and her perspective on the world – replicated in the picture by the angle the artist has painted – is not something she has chosen but something pathology has forced on her. 

Hint: Look at her arms; then her legs, or, at least, what you can see of them.

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Answer Her limbs are remarkably thin – wasted, in fact. And she’s not reclining on the grass, but is crawling home through the fields because she cannot walk, and refuses to use a wheelchair. She was apparently a neighbour of the artist and is thought to have suffered a progressive neuromuscular disorder. The original general consensus was that the underlying diagnosis was probably poliomyelitis. But more recently it has been suggested that she actually suffered the inherited polyneuropathy Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, or even the long-term neurological effects of untreated Lyme disease, perhaps picked up by (ironically) by crawling, as a child, through that long New England grass. 

Dr Keith Hopcroft is  Pulse’s medical adviser and a GP in Basildon, Essex 

Sources

  • Radjonic A. The Undiagnosed Patient in Christina’s World. Medical Humanities 2020:133;2:253-254
  • Stricker R. Christina’s World and the Universe of Lyme Disease. American Journal of Medicine 2021:134;1:E74


          

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