Characteristics of Georgia O'Keeffe Paintings

Georgia O'Keeffe's painting from the Pelvis Series shows how she uses scale and cropping in her paintings.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)stands at an easel outdoors, adjusting a canvas from her 'Pelvis Series -Red With Yellow,' Albuquerque, NM, 1960. Tony Vaccaro/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower - lean forward to smell it - maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking - or give it to someone to please them. Still - in a way - nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven't time - and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it. "   - Georgia O'Keeffe, "About Myself," 1939 (1)

American Modernist

Georgia O'Keeffe (November 15, 1887-March 6, 1986), arguably the greatest female American artist, painted in a unique and personal way, was one of the first American artists to embrace abstraction, becoming one of the leading figures of the American modernist movement.   

As a young artist O'Keeffe was influenced by the works of many artists and photographers, bridging the world of avant-garde art in Europe before World War I, such as the work of Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso, with the new modernist artists in America, such as Arthur Dove. When O'Keeffe came upon Dove's work in 1914 he was already a leading figure of the American modernist movement."His abstract paintings and pastels were stunningly different from the conventional styles and subjects being taught at art schools and academies." (2)  O'Keeffe "admired Dove's bold, abstract forms and vibrant colors and determined to seek out more of his work." (3) 

Subjects

Although influenced by other artists and photographers, and herself a leading figure of the American modernist movement, O'Keeffe followed her own artistic vision, choosing to paint her subjects in a way that expressed her own experience and what she felt about them.

Her career, spanning eight decades, included subjects ranging from the skyscrapers of New York City to the vegetation and landforms of Hawaii to the mountains and deserts of New Mexico.

 She was most inspired by organic forms and objects in nature, and most well-known for her large-scale and close-up paintings of flowers.

Characteristics of Georgia O'Keeffe Paintings

  • O'Keeffe loved the forms and shapes of nature. She would walk miles in the desert sun of New Mexico, collecting rocks and sun-bleached bones.  
  • Many of the forms she paints are simplified, and sculptural, with gently rounded corners like the adobe houses of New Mexico where she lived for many years.
  • Lines in her paintings and drawings are curvy and sinuous, like a winding river.
  • O'Keeffe created a unique fusion of realism and abstraction. Although she worked from identifiable subject matter, she abstracted it in her own way.
  • The positive and negative shapes in many of her paintings are simple and graphic. The shapes are easily distinguishable and clean, even in her paintings of the urban landscape of New York City, such as New York with Moon, (1925, 48"x30").
  • She was interested in scale and experimenting with it.  She painted flowers much larger than life so that people would take notice and experience them the same way she did. Some of her paintings show foreground objects in grand scale, making them appear monumental, while mountains in the distance are diminutive, such as in her paintings of bones against a desert sky. See her painting Pelvis with the Distance, 1943.
  • She used photography techniques like zooming and cropping. She magnified the flowers and cropped them, zooming in on them and filling the canvas, using a technique introduced by photography. By continuing to zoom in and crop her subject she created increasingly abstract compositions.
  • O'Keeffe loved bright, bold and intense color. She would often use bright blues, yellows, greens, reds, and purples.
  • She often painted using flat color, emphasizing the shape of her subject rather than three-dimensional form.  Her paintings convey an even lighting, as though everything is painted at high noon.
  • O'Keeffe's landscape paintings are mostly a frontal view, showing horizontal bands of intense color, much like the hills of New Mexico.  
  • Her paintings are void of human presence.  They express the essence of her inner vision, without the distraction of human form. Much like her solitary and individualistic persona, her paintings convey a peaceful solitude. 
  • Some of her later paintings show the influence of Surrealism, with skulls floating in the sky. See her painting Summer Days,1936 and listen to audio guide here.
  • Her paintings are not as much about the illusion of space or form as they are about shape, line, and color. Her style of painting was influenced by Zen Buddhism and the simplicity of Japanese art, but mostly she was driven by her own unique vision to create the iconic paintings that have made her one of America's greatest painters.

"I have but one desire as a painter - that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional deals or the professional collector."                                   - Georgia O'Keeffe  (from The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

Watch: Video from the Whitney Museum on Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction

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REFERENCES

1. O'Keeffe, Georgia, Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, edited by Nicholas Callaway, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

2. DoveO'Keeffe, Circles of Influence, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, June 7-September 7, 2009, http://www.clarkart.edu/exhibitions/dove-okeeffe/content/new-york-modernism.cfm

3. Ibid.