Born on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe always felt that her identity was rooted in the natural world. She felt compelled to portray the environment around her—be it the spectacular storms she witnessed in Lake George, New York or the dazzling sunsets of Canyon, Texas. Landscapes consequently constitute a critical aspect of her oeuvre
, and her work frequently expresses her desire to understand the feeling and character of a specific place. In 1929 in an effort to escape city life, O'Keeffe left New York to spend the summer in New Mexico, a place she had briefly visited only once prior more than 10 years earlier. While the stark simplicity and expansiveness of the desert landscape always strongly appealed to her artistic sensibilities, this particular trip proved transformative for O’Keeffe both personally and artistically. “When I got to New Mexico that was mine,” she later articulated of how the environment captured her imagination. “As soon as I saw it that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air, it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different” (Perry Miller Adato, Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe likely painted On the Old Santa Fe Road
around the time of her second summer stay in New Mexico in 1930. During this period, she began to execute significant landscape paintings of the Southwest, applying the aesthetic she developed in New York to this new, wholly unique place. Suffused with a crystalline quality of light, O’Keeffe’s depiction of the mountains she encountered in the sparse wilderness outside of Taos perfectly captures the rugged architectural forms and brilliant colors she found there—features that some believed had never before been so successfully translated by an American artist. "The Southwest has been painted often,” writes Lloyd Goodrich, “but often badly, by artists who believe that a beautiful subject produces a beautiful picture. But O'Keeffe translates this landscape into the language of art…Always her desert poetry is embodied in robust physical language, speaking to her senses" (Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition
, New York, 1970, p. 22).
In On the Old Santa Fe Road
, O’Keeffe emphasizes the drama of the setting by allowing the powerful cliffs and rolling hills to dominate the composition. She eliminates the foreground entirely and includes only a small area of blue sky and clouds, implying that the viewer is closely positioned to these mountainous forms. O’Keeffe captures the intensity of the New Mexican light by applying passages of varying shades of brown, tan and rose to render her subject. Her crisply defined contours and careful modeling of forms create sculptural depth on the picture plane, while simultaneously her disregard for traditional scale and spatial depth contributes to a modern sense of flattened patterning. As such, O’Keeffe transforms a traditional landscape into an abstract design of organic lines and shapes. “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract,” she once explained of her intent. “Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify” (Barbara Haskell, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction
, New York, 2009, p. 166).
Works such as On the Old Santa Fe Road reveal the profound inspiration O’Keeffe gleaned from the Southwest. The expansive grandeur of the landscape provided a free range for her imagination and she would continue to investigate its imagery for the remainder of her life, returning almost every summer until 1949 when she made Abiquiu, New Mexico her permanent home. In On the Old Santa Fe Road, O’Keeffe transcends a literal study of nature to evoke the spiritual connection she felt with the place. By doing so, she presents a vision of the American landscape that is distinctly hers. As the artist herself explained in 1977, “I used to think that somebody could teach me to paint a landscape. I hunted and hunted for that person and finally found that I had to do it myself” (Tom Zito, “Georgia O’Keeffe: At Home on Ghost Ranch, the Iconoclastic Artist at 90,” Washington Post, November 9, 1977, C1).