Primarily recognized for her paintings of flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe is a pioneer of American art. Her flower paintings were a crucial step in the evolution of her work as a modernist painter. Ever since their inception, they have garnered both praise and disdain from critics who have pondered over the true meaning behind these flowers. Read on to learn more about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and how she became the modern master of flowers.
The Beginning of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flowers
Georgia O’Keeffe had been influenced by flowers since her early childhood living in rural Wisconsin. While going to high school in Milwaukee her high-school teacher brought a jack-in-the-pulpit plant to class and it was a pivotal point for O’Keeffe. It was where she began to examine the shapes and textures of flowers and had the desire to paint them as well. O’Keeffe would later use this flower as part of a series of paintings in 1930.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and her artistic style did not start out as being modernist, but rather very traditional. She initially started painting still lifes and flowers using watercolors. The image seen above was made in 1915 and while it has larger and looser brushstrokes, it is still closer to a traditional still life image. In 1919 O’Keeffe began rendering red canna lily flowers in oil paint instead of watercolors. This resulted in richly and vibrantly pigmented red lilies. The canna lily was a flower subject that she used primarily in the 1920s. It was while living in New York City that she started this process and was where she first debuted these paintings in gallery exhibitions. The city had a large impact on the way that she portrayed the canna lily. Each successive painting grew larger in size and became increasingly more abstract.
Life From a Different Point of View
Georgia O’Keeffe’s use of empty/negative space and a close-up point of view is a signature of her work. O’Keeffe’s paintings while living in New York City were some of the first to explore this zoomed-in approach to painting flowers. The scale between enormous skyscrapers compared to the smallness of an individual flower inspired Georgia O’Keeffe’s art. She wanted her flowers to be noticed just as much as these skyscrapers, and she did this by enlarging her canvas size. By doing so she was able to add more of the actual flower itself rather than including other objects that could obstruct its beauty.
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By expanding her flowers she created a modern, minimalist approach to this subject matter. Georgia O’Keeffe’s art is an exploration of how she viewed the world throughout her life. O’Keeffe had always viewed the miniature and forgotten objects around her and made them noticeable. This is best said in O’Keeffe’s own words: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. 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.”
Moving Into the Abstract
A lot of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings become so abstract it is almost impossible to tell whether or not it is a flower. O’Keeffe was traditionally trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Afterward, she became inspired by the artist Arthur Wesley Dow. It was his art that first introduced her to creating abstract art. Before her flower paintings, she also created a series of abstract charcoal drawings. These drawings were some of her first experiments in trying to capture the essence of an object rather than simply painting its physical traits.
During the 1920’s she also painted a series of Music oil paintings that are inspired by this theory. These paintings closely resemble her flower and landscape paintings because of the overlapping shapes, undulating forms, and seamless blend of colors. Her use of color adds an emotional element to her works while her application of oil paints creates smooth surface textures and dynamic forms. It is because of O’Keeffe’s skills in painting and drawing that her paintings are such a success.
Flowers Across America
Georgia O’Keeffe traveled and lived in a variety of different places during her life and career. Each place that she visited inspired the types of flowers that she painted. O’Keeffe spent many summers at her husband’s family estate near Lake George. While here, O’Keeffe painted the jack-in-the-pulpit flowers she had first seen in high school, as well as paintings of corn stalks (seen above), and close-up images of maple leaves.
The atmosphere around the lake offered rich vegetation of plant life, and her color palette reflects this mood, with darker colors and rich tones of purples, reds, greens, and blues. She painted over 200 works of art at her Lake George studio and it was a great source of inspiration for her landscape and flower paintings.
In 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe traveled to Hawaii, and there she found more inspiration for painting flowers she had not grown up with. From this trip, her paintings include Hibiscus with Plumeria, Heliconia: Crabs Claw Ginger, White Bird of Paradise, and Pineapple Bud. She uses lighter tones of pinks, yellows, and greens in these paintings compared to the vibrant colors and rich tones of her New York flower paintings. These flower paintings are more easily recognizable than some of her earlier flower paintings.
At O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico, she found flowers/plants including jimson weed, hollyhocks, and roses. The jimson weed (seen above) is a native plant to New Mexico and it grew wild next to O’Keeffe’s home. She also placed roses and hollyhocks, particularly calico roses, in her skull and bone paintings. In these paintings, she reverses the scale of the flower from encompassing the entire canvas to being smaller than the bones in her pictures. This scaling down of the flower does not diminish its presence, but rather enhances the simplistic scenery she was known for in her desert landscapes.
Are They Just Flowers?
During her lifetime Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings were viewed as abstract paintings of female genitalia. One of the reasons for this was the way her art was critiqued in the 1920s. Male critics, in particular, deemed her paintings as vulgar representations of sex, especially because they were painted by a woman. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and his influence within their artistic community only further promoted this view of her art. O’Keeffe’s intention to be a radical modernist painter were therefore dampened by the men around her who viewed her art through a sexist and sexualized lens.
More contemporary critics now recognize O’Keeffe’s own merits as an abstract modernist who was ahead of her time, rather than simply reading the views of the males around her. We can also understand today that O’Keeffe wanted to imbue subtle, rather than overt sexual references into her flower paintings. They have much more to do with capturing the essence of the flower and with its textures, colors, and shapes. But it was her choice to paint flowers including irises, orchids, or lilies that already have a sexual connotation with them.
Freudian vs. Feminist: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Art Through the Decades
It seems that each new generation sees Georgia O’Keeffe’s art in a new way. During her own lifetime, her art has been viewed by two opposite sides of the feminist spectrum. During the time O’Keeffe first debuted her flower paintings in the 1920s and throughout the next half-century, they were commonly thought of as sexual, lustful, and sometimes vulgar paintings. A lot of the critiques that she garnered during this time can be attributed to Freudian points of view that were growing in popularity during this time.
Female associations with flowers were also starting to become seen as a connection to expressing hidden sexual urges. During the 1920s women were starting to express their sexuality and independence more so than in previous decades. Because of these changes in society, a lot of her contemporaries saw her flower paintings as female genitalia that are coyishly veiled in the form of a flower.
During the 1970s feminist groups championed her work and considered her a feminist icon. They celebrated her work with the idea that they were representing female sexual independence. Feminist activist, Gloria Steinem even attempted to visit O’Keeffe, bringing a bouquet of roses for her, but O’Keeffe reportedly did not allow her to come inside her house. Being touted as a feminist icon was something that was placed on O’Keeffe and not what she called herself. Although she believed strongly in equal rights for women, in her art O’Keeffe simply wanted to be seen as an individual, and have independence for herself and her artwork.