Sources of Inspiration for Georgia O’Keeffe, Mother of American Modernism

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Recognised as the ‘Mother of American Modernism’, perhaps O’Keeffe is best known for her paintings of magnified flowers. Besides her distinct flowers, O’Keeffe’s work also touched upon themes like animal bones, New York City skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes. Let's us explore some iconic subjects in O’Keeffe's paintings.

Georgia O’Keeffe is recognised as the ‘Mother of American Modernism’

Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her close-up, large-scale flower paintings. She made about 200 paintings of various flowers including irises, poppies, sweet peas, canna lilies, calla lilies and roses. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe started making large-scale paintings at close range by appling modernist photography techniques she had learnt. So you may find her flower paintings look like cropped, close-up graphic images.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Abstraction White Rose (1927)

Some people view her flower paintings with Freudian interpretations, believing that these paintings represent female genitalia. While some see them as a sign of female empowerment as O’Keeffe is one of the first prominent female figures that introduce sensual and feminist imagery in her works of art. It remains to be a widespread assumption that her paintings are sexual depictions even though the artist vigorously denied the Freudian interpretations of her art.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Calla Lilies on Red (1928). It will be up for auction at Sotheby's New York this month

Her flower painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) holds the auction record of the most expensive painting by a female artist after it was sold for US$44.4m at Sotheby’s in 2014.

Georgia O’Keeffe's Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) is the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at an auction

Leaves and trees

During the 1920s, while many Modernists focused primarily on the industrial sector for guidance and inspiration in subject matter, O'Keeffe embraced the natural world and painted magnified images of flowers and leaves. She imbued an object of everyday life with layers of association and elements of abstraction.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Autumn Leaves, Lake George (1924)

Georgia O’Keeffe. The Red Maple at Lake George (1926). It will be up for auction at Christie's New York this month

O'Keeffe gathered leaves during her many long walks along the paths on the property and trails in the woods. She concentrated on the sumptuous hues of autumn when she made her leaves painting, which exemplified her kinship with autumn and sensitivity to seasonal change.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Cottonwood Tree in Spring (1943). It will be up for auction at Sotheby's New York this month

City skyscrapers

Georgia O’Keeffe started making a series of paintings of New York cityscapes between 1925 and 1929. O’Keeffe’s fascination with the skyscraper began in 1924 when she and her husband, the influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, moved to an apartment building in Midtown Manhattan. It was here that she observed the construction of the Shelton Hotel, which claimed to be the tallest residential building in the world at its completion in 1924.

Georgia O’Keeffe. New York Street with Moon (1925)

The skyscraper, itself a twentieth-century American phenomenon, was arguably the first product of American culture to attract sustained international attention. O'Keeffe's acute sense of the city’s height was undoubtedly enhanced by her desire to become one of the first artists, and indeed people, to live and work in a skyscraper. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz moved to the Shelton in 1925 and the expansive views of the city’s skyline were proven to be a stimulus that she needed.

Georgia O’Keeffe. A Street (1926). It will be up for auction at Sotheby's New York this month

New Mexico Landscape

In the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe made her first trip to northern New Mexico, where she was inspired by the stark landscape, distinct indigenous art, and unique regional style of adobe architecture inspired a new direction in O’Keeffe’s artwork. For the next two decades, she began spending part of the year living and working in New Mexico, which served as inspiration for her paintings of New Mexico landscapes. After Stieglitz's death, she made there her permanent home until the last years of her life when she lived in Santa Fe.

Georgia O’Keeffe outdoors with Pelvis Series Red With Yellow, 1960

Georgia O’Keeffe. Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico (1930)

Stones, bones, shells and horns

A keen observer of nature in its various forms, Georgia O’Keeffe found importance, both pictorial and mystical, in the organic objects she found littered in the desert, seeing them as symbols of the Southwest. After her initial visit to the region in 1929, O’Keeffe made almost annual trips to New Mexico.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Horn and Feather (1937). It will be up for auction at Christie's New York this month

Georgia O’Keeffe. From the Faraway, Nearby (1937)

Just as she would collect flowers, leaves and other natural elements during her visits to Lake George, New York, she began to also collect vestiges of the Western landscape: stones, bones, skulls and horns worn by wind and water.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Two Pink Shells (1937)

Selected O’Keeffe’s paintings from upcoming auctions in November (sorted by auction dates)

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Horn and Feather

Lot no: 1B
Painted in: 1937
Size: 22.9 x 35.6 cm

  • The artist.
  • [With]The Downtown Gallery, New York.
  • Adele B. Rosenstein, New York, acquired from the above, 1953.
  • [With]Doris Bry, New York.
  • Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1978.

Estimate: US$700,000-1,000,000

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale
Date: 13 November 2018 | 7pm

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). A Street

Lot no.: 34
Executed in: 1926
Size: 122.6 x 76.2 cm

  • Alfred Stieglitz, New York
  • Mr. Robert Dowling, New York, (acquired from the above circa 1926)
  • French & Company, New York
  • Maxwell Galleries, Ltd., San Francisco, California (acquired from the above in 1968)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Anderson, Atherton, California (acquired from the above in 1968)
  • Gagosian Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1990)
  • Steve Martin, New York (acquired from the above in 1990)
  • Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • The Burnett Foundation, Fort Worth, Texas (acquired from the above in 1996)
  • Gifted to the present owner from the above in 1997

Estimate: US$12,000,000-18,000,000

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Calla Lilies on Red

Lot no.: 15
Signed and dated: 1928
Size: 81.6 x 43.5 cm

  • Anita O’Keeffe Young, Newport, Rhode Island by 1965
  • The artist (acquired from the above in 1965)
  • Estate of the above in 1986
  • Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico (acquired from the above in 1987)
  • Anne Windfohr Marion, Fort Worth, Texas (acquired from the above in 1987)
  • Gifted to the present owner from the above in 1996

Estimate: US$8,000,000-120,000,000

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Date: 14 November 2018|6:30pm

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Cottonwood Tree in Spring

Lot no.: 10
Painted in: 1943

  • [With]An American Place, New York
  • [With]The Downtown Gallery, New York
  • Wright Ludington, Santa Barbara, California, 1944 (acquired from the above)
  • [With]Richard L. Feigen & Co., Inc., New York
  • Ruth Carter Stevenson, Fort Worth, Texas, 1965 (acquired from the above)
  • Amon Carter Museum of Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1986 (gift from the above)
  • [With]Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • The Burnett Foundation, Fort Worth, Texas, 1996 (acquired from the above)
  • Gift to the present owner from the above, 1997

Estimate: US$1,500,000-2,500,000

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: American Art
Date: 16 November 2018|12pm

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). The Red Maple at Lake George

Lot no.: 6
Painted in: 1926
Size: 91.4 x 76.2 cm

  • The artist.
  • [With]Doris Bry, New York.
  • Anita O'Keeffe Young, Newport, Rhode Island, after 1965.
  • Estate of the above, 1985.
  • Robert R. Young Foundation, Cincinnati, Ohio, by descent, 1985.
  • Sotheby's, New York, 3 December 1987, lot 3, sold by the above.
  • [With]Montgomery Gallery, San Francisco, California.
  • Private collection, Napa, California, 1987, acquired from the above.
  • Christie's, New York, 2 December 2004, lot 99, sold by the above.
  • Acquired by the present owners from the above.

Estimate: US$7,000,000-10,000,000

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: American Art
Date: 20 November 2018|10am