“The weather continues beyond description. No 2 moments is the landscape the same. Georgia is putting experiences to paint…A new note. Quite extraordinary. Very different.”
Alfred Stieglitz, September 1921
Lake George with White Birch is a seminal work that belongs to one of the most formative periods of Georgia O’Keeffe’s career, during which time she defined the subjects and styles that would characterize her most iconic images. She felt a deep connection to Lake George, which provided her respite from the bustle and at times stifling energy of New York City, leading to periods of intense productivity and the introduction of a number of themes that she would continue to explore throughout her career.
O’Keeffe first visited Lake George in 1908. The lake and bucolic shoreline were an early and enduring attraction for prominent American landscape artists and by the turn of the nineteenth century the location had become a favored destination among America’s vacationing elite. A decade passed before O’Keeffe returned to the area, during which time she worked as a commercial artist in Chicago and an art teacher in Texas, simultaneously evolving her unique artistic approach through experiments with various media and subject matter. One such venture, a series of innovative charcoal abstractions executed in 1916, brought O’Keeffe to the attention of the photographer and avant-garde gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. By 1918 the two were inextricably intertwined; he was her mentor and dealer, she was his artistic and photographic muse. Romantically involved despite his marital status, the couple made the pilgrimage that summer to the Stieglitz family’s imposing and luxurious cottage on the shores of Lake George. They would continue to divide their time between their apartment in New York City and the Lake George farm for the next 14 years and married in 1924. The couple's creative and artistic output during this period is arguably one of the most significant contributions to American modernism.
O’Keeffe converted one of the barns on the property into a studio as a place to escape from the demands made by the constant stream of summertime visitors, about whom she frequently complained in her letters from this period. Regardless of the social distractions, the rural environment of Lake George deeply inspired her: “I wish you could see the place here,” she wrote in a 1923 letter to Sherwood Anderson, “there is something so perfect about the mountains and the trees—Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces—it seems so perfect—but it is really lovely—And when the household is in good running order—and I feel free to work it is very nice” (E. B. Coe, et al., Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, Glens Falls, New York, 2013, p. 15).
In their search for a national art, artists in Stieglitz’s circle frequently turned to subjects and themes they viewed as an expression of authentic and uniquely American values. “As first generation American Modernists working immediately after the devastation of World War I they sought to come to terms with both their European heritage and their American experience and to construct an art that was intimately a part of their time and place” (S. Greenough, Modern Art and America, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 280). Given the strong tradition of landscape painting begun with the Hudson River School painters and O’Keeffe’s interest in and spiritual connection to the natural world, it is not surprising that she would look to her surrounding environs for inspiration.
Lake George had been a popular destination for nineteenth century landscape painters including luminaries such as Thomas Cole, Martin Johnson Heade, Asher Brown Durand, Sanford Robinson Gifford and John Frederick Kensett among others, who were drawn to its natural splendor. O’Keeffe was the first painter to explore the lake region in a modernist idiom, continuing the legacy of American landscape painting through a radically modern aesthetic. In Lake George with White Birch, she reinterprets this traditional subject matter in an innovative and seminal fashion that manifests the inimitable style that made her one of the most celebrated artists of her day and accounts for her continuing popularity and critical acclaim.
Lake George with White Birch marks a fundamental departure from O’Keeffe’s predecessors, one that is much more in keeping with her European peers such as Wassily Kandinksy and Emil Nolde in its strikingly emotive use of color. Rather than merely transcribing nature she successfully alters the landscape to convey the true spirit of the place and the impact of the fiery autumnal scene on her personally. This pivotal painting demonstrates O’Keeffe’s distillation of various influences into her own unique style. “From [Arthur Wesley] Dow and art nouveau O’Keeffe had learned about composition and design, from Picasso and Braque she had received instruction about form and structure, and from Kandinksy and Matisse she had garnered invaluable insights into color. From Stieglitz and other photographers she learned how to read photographs, how to appropriate some of their strategies, and how she could both utilize and undercut the mimetic properties of the medium in order to present 'the real meaning of things'” (ibid., p. 289).
Lake George with White Birch is arresting in its striking, emotive color and exceedingly rare in the complexity of composition. O’Keeffe omits extraneous detail to focus on aspects of color and design that convey the vitality of the place, reducing the work to a powerful synthesis of clearly defined forms and modulated hues that pulsate with life and energy. She masterfully juxtaposes the verticality of the trees with the horizontal expanse of lake and hills to imbue the work with balance and tension and emphasizes the repetition inherent to the organic shapes of the lakescape—the undulating form of the mountain echoed by the billowing clouds and rounded edges of the trees. The dramatic sky—rendered in steely blue and gray tones—evokes the incredible summer storms for which the region was famous: “The weather up here has gone absolutely mad," Stieglitz wrote to O’Keeffe in 1919. “I have never seen such skies—Lightning changes of infinite variety—as the last three days here. We are having summer, autumn, spring and winter within a few hours” (Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, September 3, 1919, Stieglitz Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut). Stieglitz was also fascinated by the changing weather and tempestuous sky, taking the dramatic cloud formations as the subject of several series of photographs. Working together at Lake George pushed both artists’ work in new, bolder directions and arguably, O’Keeffe was a greater influence on Stieglitz than the older photographer was on her. A family friend of Stieglitz’s remarked, “Mr. Alfred would never have been the photographer he later was if he hadn’t got with Georgia…after Georgia came, he made the clouds, the moon, he even made lightning. He never photographed things like that before” (quoted in C. C. Eldredge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 49).
O’Keeffe’s tendency toward abstraction was a conscious one - while her vision remained tempered with vestiges of realism, she sought and achieved something more individual. She said, “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. 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” (Barbara, Haskell, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, 2009, p. 166). Lake George with White Birch brilliantly exemplifies the exquisite balance O’Keeffe established between abstraction and realism. Barbara Lynes writes, “She cropped forms, eliminated or distorted relationships between foreground and background elements, compressed space, and forced her subjects forward, as if seen through a close-up lens…It is clear that O’Keeffe was fascinated with the world around her, and she collected objects whose particular qualities—color, shape, texture—symbolized for her the meaning of a specific place or experience…and by isolating them from any environmental reference transformed the simple and seemingly nondescript objects into centralized, monumental forms” (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Collections, 2007, pp. 143 & 175). The central tree form in Lake George with White Birch presages the magnified images of leaves that O’Keeffe would produce a couple of years later and a number of tenants in the painting can be seen in her later New Mexico works.
Lake George with White Birch is a pivotal painting that manifests O’Keeffe’s deep connection to the natural world and encapsulates a number of the leitmotifs that would define her career. It was included in Stieglitz’s groundbreaking 1923 solo exhibition at the Anderson Galleries and beautifully demonstrates critic Herbert J. Seligmann’s comment, “She appears to have a power, like the composers, of creating deft, subtle intricate chords and of concentrating two such complexes with all the oppositional power of two simple complimentary colors” (quoted in S. W. Peters, Becoming O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 171).