Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931. Georgia O'Keeffe. Oil on canvas. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1952.
Weary of life in the metropolis, O’Keeffe began taking regular retreats to Lake George, New York, and then to New Mexico. After her first extended trip to the Southwest in 1929, her artistic interests shifted from the buildings of New York to the nature of New Mexico. In this work, O’Keeffe isolates a single skull, highlighting its jagged edges, worn surfaces, and bleached color. To O’Keeffe, such bones represented the desert’s enduring beauty and the strength of the American spirit, which is alluded to in the striped background. In 1949 O’Keeffe settled permanently in New Mexico, where she lived until her death in 1986.
For seven decades, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) was a major figure in American art. Remarkably, she remained independent from shifting art trends and stayed true to her own vision, which was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in nature. With exceptionally keen powers of observation and great finesse with a paintbrush, she recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light that enlivened her paintings and attracted a wide audience. Her primary subjects were landscapes, flowers, and bones, explored in series over several years and even decades. The images were drawn from her life experience and related either generally or specifically to places where she lived.
During the 1920s, O’Keeffe painted a series of architectural pictures that dramatically depict the soaring skyscrapers and aerial views of New York City. But most often, she painted landscapes and botanical studies that were inspired by summer trips to Lake George, New York. In her magnified close-ups of flowers, begun in 1924, O’Keeffe brings the viewer right into the picture. Enlarging the tiniest petals to fill an entire 30 x 40 inch canvas emphasized their shapes and lines and made them appear abstract, when in fact they were based on her observations of nature. Such daring compositions helped establish O’Keeffe’s reputation as an innovative modernist.
Toward the end of the decade, the strains of dealing with the New York art world, her growing boredom with Lake George, and her deteriorating relationship with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, took their toll on her physical and emotional health. In response, she made her first extended trip to New Mexico in 1929. It was a visit that had a lasting impact on her life, and an immediate effect on her work. Over the next twenty years, from 1929 to 1949, she made almost annual trips to New Mexico, staying up to six months there, painting in relative solitude, then returning to New York each winter to exhibit the new work at Stieglitz’s gallery. This pattern continued until she moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949.
There, O’Keeffe found new subjects to paint in the sun-bleached animal bones and the rugged mountains that dominate the terrain. New Mexico’s majestic landscape, with its unusual geological formations, vivid colors, clarity of light, and exotic vegetation, held her attention for more than four decades. Often she painted the rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up, just as she had done with her flower subjects.