O’Keeffe’s fascination with shells began in her childhood, spent far from the ocean in rural Wisconsin. She recalls, “When I was small and went to visit my O’Keeffe grandmother, I sometimes got into the parlor by myself and would take a shell from the ‘whatnot,’ a set of fancy shelves between two windows. The shelves held many things I was not to touch but when I got in there alone I would take a shell from the whatnot and hold it close to my ear. I had been told that the sound I heard was the sound of the sea – I had not heard the sea at that time but it was wonderful to me to listen to it in the shell. So when I grew up and went where there were shells I was always looking for them” (Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1976). The artist first used shells as subject matter in 1926, producing a group of paintings devoted to realistically depicting the shape and appearance of the clam shell. That same year, she embarked on a series entitled Shell and Old Shingle, which challenged the boundaries of abstraction and distilled the shell and shingle to their essential shapes. She continued to paint the shell through the late 1920s and 1930s, experimenting with the orientation and alternating between realism and abstraction.
Painted in 1937, Shell exemplifies O’Keeffe’s mastery of form and color, particularly her opulent sense of white. Through subtle variations of tone paired with precise brushstrokes, O’Keeffe renders the undulating edges of the shell and creates volume to convey the tactile quality of both the shell and the surrounding coral. Shell is an expression the artist’s experimental thought process as the composition can be viewed both horizontally and vertically. Painted the same year as Shell and similarly intimate in size, Two Pink Shells/Pink Shell can also be viewed in this manner and demonstrates how O’Keeffe experimented with the orientation of her still life paintings (fig. 1). Shell was most likely painted at Ghost Ranch, the Abiquiú, New Mexico property O’Keeffe visited for the first time in 1934 and then almost annually between 1934 and 1939 until making it her permanent home in 1940. Later in life, O’Keeffe reflected on shells as subject matter, “I have picked up shells along the coast of Maine – farther south, in the Bermudas and Bahamas I found conch shells along the pure sandy beaches. Then when I was in Yucatan out on the beach from Merida there were fine bleached white shells in the undergrowth where the water must have washed them up… Each shell was a beautiful world in itself… Even now, living in the desert, the sea comes back to me when I hold one to my ear” (Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1976).
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