- United States
Georgia O’Keeffe, United States
21 1/2 x 11 1/8 inches
The Charles Francis Hendrie Memorial Collection, 1966.44
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
Flowers were one of O’Keeffe’s primary subjects—she made over 200 paintings of them. Many of the paintings are close-up views but some, like this one, show simple arrangements of one or two blooms in a vase. “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not,” she said.
O’Keeffe spent a great deal of time closely observing and examining flowers. Notice that she painted one petunia in a frontal view and the other from the side as they both drooped gently over the top of the glass vase.
“Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me,” said O’Keeffe. She loved color. She planted a bed of petunias at Lake George just to study the color purple. She painted the flowers shown here in a richly saturated purple with pink highlights and black accents. The contents of the vase are equally colorful—the stems form a pattern of lines and gradations of green. The background, too, is infused with multiple colors of white, light purple, and bluish-green. O’Keeffe often used a separate brush for each color so the colors wouldn’t get muddied or blend together.
O’Keeffe kept this composition clean and free of extraneous detail. There are two flowers, one vase, and a background without any other objects, and there is little suggestion of depth. “Details are confusing,” she said. “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”