In 1929 the painter and illustrator Miguel Covarrubias published a drawing of Georgia O’Keeffe in the July 6th issue of The New Yorker
. Titled “The Lady of the Lily,” Covarrubias’s elongated rendering of O’Keeffe’s form mimicked the elegant curves of the calla lily she is depicted holding, creating the impression of the flower as an extension of the artist herself (Fig. 1). By the time of this publication, O’Keeffe’s work had exploded in popularity: her magnified images of flowers had captured the attention of the New York art world and incited endless public and critical speculation as to their meaning. Between 1918 and 1932 O’Keeffe executed over 200 flower paintings, but it was arguably in the calla lily that the artist found her ideal motif, one that provided the perfect synthesis of subject and form that now defines her most celebrated work. Though many modernists were visually exploring the calla lily during this time, by the end of the 1920s the flower had become O’Keeffe’s signature subject—the two merged in public opinion just as they were in Covarrubias’s image.
O’Keeffe executed White Calla Lily
in 1927, four years after the flower first captured her attention. She would ultimately depict the calla lily eight times in this period, in both oil and pastel, revisiting the blossom on each occasion with a new viewpoint or altered perspective. O’Keeffe’s fondness for serial imagery was partly ingrained in her by one of her early instructors, Arthur Wesley Dow, who used this method to emphasize the importance of unique ways of seeing. Hence, O’Keeffe often created a series of four, five or six canvases painted on a single theme and explained, “I work with an idea for a long time. It’s like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily…Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract” (Calvin Tompkins, Notes from Interview with Georgia O’Keeffe, September 24, 1973, for his New Yorker
profile, “The Rose in the Eye Looked Pretty Fine,” March 4, 1973).
While the striking precision with which O’Keeffe portrays her subject in the present work is typical of her oeuvre
, her technique is particularly effective when rendering the specific form of the calla lily. Here she portrays the petals with subtly modulated tones of white, yellow, green and lavender to evoke the play of light and shadow across their surfaces. This application contrasts dynamically with the more painterly execution of the almost atmospheric folds of the textile upon which the lily rests. Her assured brushstrokes create sharply delineated contours and a lush surface on the canvas. She emphasizes the simple elegance of the curves of the flower by reducing extraneous details, while the verticality of the canvas itself further accentuates its oblong form. Pulsing with color and energy, the composition suggests O’Keeffe’s belief in the active rhythms present in the natural world, an idea that pervades her body of work.
As the muse and wife of Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe was undoubtedly exposed to the aesthetic ideas of this avant-garde photographer and gallerist, particularly during this pivotal period. Her dialogue with the work of Stieglitz and other contemporary photographers such as Paul Strand and Imogen Cunningham is evident in many of her flower paintings (Fig. 2), in which she distorts conventional perspective and crops the composition sharply so that the blossom fills the pictorial space entirely. By removing the visual cues that would typically allow for instant recognition of the subject, O’Keeffe similarly compels her viewer to consider a representational object not for its function but rather purely for its formal qualities—its distinctive color, line and shape—that might otherwise be overlooked in everyday life. As such, she makes strange something that was once familiar, and approaches the elusive boundary between realism and abstraction that is central to her singular language of modernism.
Indeed O’Keeffe prioritized the importance of observation throughout her career, a preoccupation perhaps best articulated in her oft-quoted explanation of the impetus for her most iconic images: “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—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers” (Georgia O’Keeffe in Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier, “Still Life Redefined,” Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 47). O’Keeffe’s intent to consider of an everyday object in a new way is one that would be explored even more deeply throughout the 20th century, when American artists such as Jasper Johns used their work to reinforce the separation between image and object, representation and reality. In works like Three Flags (Fig. 3), Johns complicates the depiction of an iconic image: the American flag. His unique treatment of the flag—stacked and painted with unexpectedly textural encaustic pigment—invites us to reexamine something that was once instantly recognizable, and ultimately pushes us to question the difference between what we see and what we know.
Born on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe always felt that her identity was rooted in the natural world: “Anita do you feel like flowers sometimes?” she wrote in a letter to her friend Anita Pollizter, articulating the deep connection she felt existed between nature and herself (O’Keeffe to Pollitzer, October 1915, in Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 10). Beyond the multitude of interpretations the flower paintings have invited, these images are undeniably deeply personal ones. As Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier explains, “combined with the enlarged, close-up view of the object, O’Keeffe’s technique offers an assertive brand of realism that prompts a more modern, emotional involvement with the subject, an involvement heightened by the fact that the subject is abstracted just enough to remind us that it is not solely the ‘thing’ it purports to be. It can be many things, including a surrogate for the artist herself” (Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 74).
Of all of O’Keeffe’s botanical subjects, the calla lilies have arguably become most closely associated with the artist. O’Keeffe kept White Calla Lily in her own collection until her death in 1986, perhaps signifying the importance she ascribed to it. Like the best examples of her work, its imagery conveys O’Keeffe’s wholly unique vision of the natural world and ultimately, of herself. In paintings such as White Calla Lilies on Red (Fig. 4), it has been suggested that that O’Keeffe depicts herself as the lily accompanied by Stieglitz who, represented by the leaf that signifies his cloak, rises up behind as if about to envelop her. In White Calla Lily, however, O’Keeffe portrays the flower alone. As such, it becomes a type of portrait of the artist as she truly saw herself: powerful, commanding and independent.