Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in April 2014

Through May 11, 2014, the de Young presents an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings created at Lake George in upstate New York. These landscapes and botanical studies were created between 1918 and the early 1930’s during O’Keeffe’s annual summer trips to Alfred Stieglitz’s family estate.

Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1887 and spent her early years on the family farm where she first discovered the tranquil beauty of the natural world. But it was during her summers in Lake George that she began to develop what became her distinctive modernist take on nature.

This particular era of O’Keeffe’s career was bookmarked by important events. In April 1916, O’Keeffe’s drawings were first exhibited in New York at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. It was at this same gallery that O’Keeffe had her first solo exhibition in 1917. In 1918, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz began living together after she moved to New York. It was during this time that Stieglitz began his photo portrait series of O’Keeffe, his newest and, through the years, most revisited subject.

Between 1918 and 1930, O’Keeffe evolved in her approach to subject matter. She was fond of saying that if one merely painted nature as it appeared, the painting would always be less remarkable than the original, and there would be no reason to paint. Representational interpretations of her surroundings became less important than recording her impressions in paint. The resulting canvases, in rich, subtly blended colors, forged the path she would pursue for the rest of her career. Her impressions of Lake George, for example, show a line gently bisecting the canvas representing the lake’s horizon nestled between the mountains above and their symmetrical reflection below. The particulars of trees, hills and water are simplified to color, light and shade.

By 1930, O’Keeffe was one of the most respected and famous painters in America. In particular, her trademark large scale close-up paintings of flowers were in demand, selling for high prices. After traveling to Santa Fe, NM in 1929, she found new inspiration in the American southwest’s serene allure and eventually moved to the area. Here O’Keeffe painted expansive skies, cliffs, skulls and desert flowers—imagery that defined her later work.

The Lake George paintings represent a time and place that witnessed the metamorphosis of Georgia O’Keeffe from a talented art student to a singularly distinctive American painter.

Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George is on view at the de Young Museum from February 15–May 11, 2014.

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