- Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887-1986
- Born: Sun Prairie, WI
- Work Locations: New York, NY; New Mexico
- United States
About the Artist
Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman ahead of her time: independent, adventurous, and radically creative. Her paintings of abstract forms, flowers, architecture, landscapes, and bones earned her a reputation as a pioneering modern American artist.
O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, and her early years living on the family’s dairy farm initiated a lifelong appreciation of nature. She declared in 8th grade that she wanted to be an artist, and after learning to draw in her art classes at school, she went on to study drawing and painting more formally in Virginia, New York, and Chicago.
In 1912, while O’Keeffe was enrolled in a summer drawing class at the University of Virginia, she was introduced to the ideas of artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow thought that artists should “fill a space in a beautiful way” rather than try to copy directly from nature. He offered advice on organizing and balancing shapes, lines, and colors in the composition; simplifying forms; and balancing dark and light. O’Keeffe adapted these tools to her own work, producing a series of abstract charcoal drawings that were like nothing she had ever done before. Of her newfound discovery of abstraction, she expressed that “It was like learning to walk. I was alone and singularly free, no one to satisfy but myself." These principles went on to permeate all of her future work.
O’Keeffe shared her abstract charcoal drawings with a friend from art school, who, in 1916, took them to Alfred Stieglitz without O’Keeffe’s knowledge or permission. Stieglitz was a photographer and owner of the influential art gallery 291 in New York City, where the cutting-edge work of contemporary American and European artists was exhibited. He included O’Keeffe’s drawings in a group exhibition, officially launching her career in the public eye. The two went on to form a relationship and eventually marry in 1924 and were among the most well-known advocates of modern art in America.
O’Keeffe’s career spanned nearly six decades. Reflecting on her career at age 90, O’Keeffe said, “It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve…A kind of nerve, and a lot of hard, hard work.”
What Inspired It
A dairy cow is an unusual subject for O’Keeffe, who rarely included people or animals in her work. But a cow was no stranger to O’Keeffe, who spent her childhood on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She also would have known cattle from her years of teaching art in Amarillo, Texas, during her twenties. This particular cow was likely inspired by one she saw on her many stays in the upstate resort area of Lake George, New York, where she regularly spent summers with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and his family.
O’Keeffe’s work was often inspired by her surroundings. In the 1920s she painted the skyscrapers of New York, where she lived with Stieglitz. She experimented with close-up views of flowers that she occasionally glimpsed in the city and saw in abundance at Lake George. In 1929 she began summering in New Mexico—moving there permanently in the 1940s after Stieglitz’s death—and depicted the crosses, landscapes, architecture, and other aspects of her adopted home in colorful paintings. And when she began to travel the world in her later years, she painted her interpretation of the view from the airplane, above the clouds.
The cow’s head takes up the entire length and width of the 20x12-inch canvas and is shown in perfect profile against a plain background. The head forms a triangular shape on the canvas, beginning with the narrower tongue and snout and widening toward the skull and ears at the bottom of the composition.
Do you see the vibrant green grapes dangling from the top of the composition? The cow’s curved pink tongue reaches out from its parted lips as it tries to get a taste of the juicy fruits above.
Notice the large eye staring directly out at you as the tongue reaches up to taste the grapes. Have we caught the cow in the act of pilfering the grapes?
“Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me,” said O’Keeffe. She loved color. Variations of rich greens and pinks saturate the canvas and contrast with the black and white of the cow’s head. Notice the soft pink color of the nostril and the thin crescent of blue above the large pupil of the cow’s eye.
There isn’t a straight line to be found in this painting. The rounded eye, the jaw lines, the arch of the tongue, the oval nostrils, the plump grapes, and even the pattern of fur colors are made of smooth, curved lines. O’Keeffe often used the curved line as a repeating form in her drawings and paintings.