Before the Bones, There was Water: Georgia O'Keeffe & Lake George

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Before the Bones, There was Water: Georgia O'Keeffe & Lake George

By Elizabeth Chew, Ph.D., 
Betsy Main Babcock Director of the Curatorial and Education Division |@LearnReynolda

[Reynolda Moderns exhibit  in Northeast Bedroom Gallery through June 1, 2014]

Many people associate Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) with the landscape of the American Southwest, but before she began painting bones in the New Mexico desert, the place O’Keeffe can be most closely associated with is Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where her dealer, lover, and later husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had a family estate. From 1918 until 1934, O’Keeffe spent several months of every year at Lake George. This would be one of the most productive periods in her artistic life.
During the years she summered at Lake George, O’Keeffe painted the undulating silhouette of the mountains bordering the lake, buildings on the Stieglitz property, flowers, vegetables, fruit, trees, leaves. Here she began the intense examinations of the natural world for which she would become well known. She filled canvases from edge to edge with tight views of petunias or poppies, maple leaves, the trunk and limbs of a birch tree, so close up that petals or the veins in a leaf become abstract forms, separated from any identifiable context. 
In Reynolda House’s Pool in the Woods, a pastel from 1922, O’Keeffe scrutinizes the Lake George landscape in the same concentrated way. She centers the composition around an oval void, certainly the Lake. At the top, a blue contour defines the mountain ridge. Next, brushy layers of green suggest the tree-line, with an earthy brown below bordering the oval. The layers repeat on the other side of the hole, presenting a mirror image in the water. O’Keeffe has reduced the view of sky, mountains, trees, & lake to concentric bands around a swirling center.
My favorite aspect of O’Keeffe’s work is her Lake George material, which has saturated color and a lushness that I find lacking in her later work. I also really like the story of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz made his name in the art world in 1902 when he mounted the first ever photography exhibition in New York. He became associated with a group of pictorialist photographers known as the Photo-Secession, and created an influential periodical called Camera Work. In 1905 he opened the first of his series of galleries at 291 Fifth Avenue. This famous crucible of modernism became known simply as “291.” O’Keeffe first visited 291 to see an exhibition of Rodin drawings in 1908 when she was an art student in New York. Through a friend, Anita Pollitzer, O’Keeffe kept up with Stieglitz, 291, and Camera Work over the next several years while she was teaching art in Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. In 1916 Pollitzer showed some of O’Keeffe’s drawings to Stieglitz. As a result, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe began a correspondence that eventually resulted in the first O’Keeffe exhibition at 291 and O’Keeffe moving to New York in 1918 to be with Stieglitz, who left his wife. Their partnership is a great story of modernism in the United States.

Visit the Museum before May 4, to see Pool in the Woods  and 4 other pieces by Georgia O'Keeffe in American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell

Learn more about Reynolda Moderns' artists from Reynolda House and Wake Forest University experts through our Modern Minute video series.

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