Lot 10
  • 10

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE | Cottonwood Tree in Spring

1,500,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • Georgia O'Keeffe
  • Cottonwood Tree in Spring
  • oil on canvas
  • 30 by 36 inches
  • (76.2 by 91.4 cm)
  • Painted in 1943.


[With]An American Place, New York
[With]The Downtown Gallery, New York
Wright Ludington, Santa Barbara, California, 1944 (acquired from the above)
[With]Richard L. Feigen & Co., Inc., New York
Ruth Carter Stevenson, Fort Worth, Texas, 1965 (acquired from the above)
Amon Carter Museum of Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1986 (gift from the above)
[With]Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Burnett Foundation, Fort Worth, Texas, 1996 (acquired from the above)
Gift to the present owner from the above, 1997


New York, An American Place, Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings – 1943, January-March 1944, no. 9, n.p.
Claremont, California, Pomona College Galleries, Stieglitz Circle: Demuth, Dove, Hartley, Marin, O'Keeffe, Weber, October-November 1958, no. 52, p. 36
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Inaugural Exhibition, July 1997-April 1998, no. 58, p. 36, illustrated p. 90
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico: An Expanding Collection, April 1998-March 1999, n.p.


Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, no. 1067, p. 671, illustrated


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Catalogue Note

In the early 1940s, Georgia O’Keeffe began painting the cottonwood trees that grew in the river basin below the mesas near her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Works from this series, which was primarily formed between 1943 and 1945, reveal the profound inspiration O’Keeffe gleaned from the American Southwest. The sublime beauty of the landscape, so different from anything she had previously encountered, 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 from 1929 to 1949 when she finally made Abiquiu her permanent home. While O’Keeffe had always utilized the natural world as the basis for her unique visual language, in Cottonwood Tree in Spring she transcends a literal study of nature to evoke the strong spiritual connection she felt with the American Southwest.

O’Keeffe started to regularly visit New Mexico in an effort to escape city life—she left New York to spend the summer there, 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 her 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” (Georgia O’Keeffe, film. Dir. Perry Miller Adato, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1977).

O’Keeffe began exploring the subject of trees in a series of 1918 watercolors and returned to the theme throughout the time she spent in Lake George in the 1920s. Her fascination with the colors and forms of the feathery cottonwoods that are native to the American Southwest progressed naturally from her earlier work and Cottonwood Tree in Spring is a daring early example of this series. O’Keeffe’s engagement with the cottonwood, a close relative of the American Aspen trees found throughout the west, represent a transition away from the circular shapes and floral imagery that garnered her wide renown. But the artist had long employed serial imagery to deepen her understanding of a particular motif. Like the master of painting en plein air, Claude Monet, O’Keeffe often painted the same subject on multiple occasions, returning again and again to explore it from a new perspective, altered light conditions, or with another medium (Fig. 1). As the partner of the avant-garde gallerist and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe was undoubtedly exposed to his innovative approach to compositional design. At times working in apparent tandem with one another, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz both captured natural motifs through a thoroughly modern lens. Their work often displays striking aesthetic similarities in its isolation, simplification and magnification of these forms (Fig. 2). Yet ultimately O’Keeffe’s interpretation of the world around her was entirely her own, and she considered her art to be the very expression of herself. “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me,” she explained, “shapes and ideas so near to me—so natural to my way of being that it has not occurred to me to put them down.”

In Cottonwood Tree in Spring, O’Keeffe presents her subject in full bloom, when the cottonwoods assume a verdant green hue and develop the feathery tufts that mimic the appearance of the downy fibers. To capture the unique qualities of the tree, O’Keeffe employs a full range of brushwork, carefully delineating the contours of the branches with bold and precise strokes yet also adopting a more painterly expression to emphasize the delicate quality of the velvety seeds. She layers the pigment onto her canvas with broad strokes and quick daubs of pigment, an active manner of execution that simultaneously recalls the paintings Monet created near the end of his storied career yet also finds similarities with the gestural approach of Abstract Expressionists such as Clyfford Still (Fig. 3) and Joan Mitchell (Fig. 4). O’Keeffe’s dynamic handling of the medium combines with her rich palette of softly modulated tones to subtly evoke the play of light and shadow on the delicate surface of the cottonwood seeds, while also imbuing the canvas with a vibrancy that conveys the lush fecundity of the season.

In her characteristic treatment of botanical subjects, O’Keeffe considers the cottonwood both boldly and distinctively, challenging the conventions of realistic painting in a manner that evokes the daring vision of Paul Cézanne in the late 19th century. Approaching the elusive boundary between representation and abstraction, she fills the picture plane with its form, rejecting traditional ideas of linear space and perspective. The artist grants merely a glimpse into the larger environmental context, showing only slivers of a vivid blue sky beyond. Her approach is also reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s engagement with this motif and his simplification and isolation of it into a nebulous grid of perpendicular horizontal and vertical lines (Fig. 5). By collapsing the space that traditionally separates an object from the viewer, O’Keeffe allows for a more directly unmediated encounter with the subject. The immersive, contemplative experience with nature that she imparts in many ways anticipates the work of Agnes Martin, a painter who was similarly inspired by the landscape of the American Southwest (Fig. 6).

Ultimately, what O’Keeffe expresses is her impression of the cottonwood as powerful and timeless, an icon that defies the fragility and impermanence that are in reality inherent to it. Indeed, O’Keeffe’s cottonwoods are among the purest examples of her intent to dissolve notions of temporality in her work. “O’Keeffe acted to suspend time,” suggests Jack Cowart, “producing art that could capture the transient. O’Keeffe made a flower, with all of its fragility, a permanent image without season, wilt or decay…In her art, fleeting effects of natural phenomena or personal emotion become symbols, permanent points of reference” (“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Artist,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 2).