GEORGIA O'KEEFFE | NATURE FORMS - GASPÉ
1887 - 1986
NATURE FORMS - GASPÉ
initialed O'K twice (on the stretcher); also signed with the artist’s initials in star device, titled Nature forms ~ Gaspé and inscribed -31 (on the backing board)
oil on canvas
10 ⅛ by 24 inches
(25.7 by 61 cm)
Painted in 1932.
By descent to the present owner
Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Studio Book, New York, 1976, no. 89, illustrated
Marilyn Vierra Clarke, Georgia O'Keeffe and the American Vanguard: 1915-1930, M.A. dissertation, University of California, Davis, 1991, p. 13, illustrated fig. 31
Sarah Whitaker Peters, Becoming O'Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 56
Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, no. 819, p. 509, illustrated
Barbara Buhler Lynes and Russell Bowman, O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection, New York, 2001, pp. 37, 167, 174
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 2004, p. 343
Nancy Hopkins Reily, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Private Friendship, Part II: Walking the Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch Land, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2009, p. 396
Janet Souter, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 2011, p. 94
New York, An American Place, Georgia O'Keeffe: Paintings - New & Some Old, January-March, 1933, no. 5 (as The Wave)
Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, Georgia O'Keeffe, January-February 1943, no. 46
Oberlin, Ohio, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Contemporary American Painting, April-May 1947, no. 20
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Art, Georgia O'Keeffe, October 1970-April 1971, no. 77, p. 34, illustrated
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College Art Museum, An Exhibition of Paintings: Georgia O'Keeffe, On the Occasion of the M. Carey Thomas Awards, October-November 1971, no. 9
Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Georgia O'Keeffe, November 1987-June 1989, no. 45, p. 284, illustrated n.p.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, 80th Anniversary Exhibition: O'Keeffe's New Mexico, July-November 1997
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Inaugural Exhibition, July 1997-April 1998
New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction, September 2009-January 2010, p. 232, illustrated pl. 26, p. 145
London, Tate Modern; Vienna, Austria, Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien; Toronto, Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, Georgia O'Keeffe, July 2016-July 2017, p. 254, illustrated fig. 97, p. 97
Throughout her career, Georgia O’Keeffe strove to depict what she described as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it” (“About Painting Desert Bones,” Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings—1943, New York, 1944, n.p.). Her spirit of adventure and passion for the natural world drove her to explore the diverse landscapes of North America, from the New Mexico desert to the pastoral beauty of upstate New York. O’Keeffe’s ability to capture the elusive boundary between representation and abstraction is central to her singular language of modernism. Painted in 1932, Nature Forms – Gaspé is a pivotal painting that belongs to one of the most formative periods of O’Keeffe’s life, during which time she defined the subjects and styles that would ultimately characterize her most iconic images.
Inspired by the natural forms and organic shapes that O’Keeffe encountered along Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, the present work transforms the region’s mossy greenery and cerulean tidal pools into the sublime, presenting her perception of its essence rather than its literal form. Eschewing the details of the subject, O’Keeffe renders the windswept coast, swirling eddies, and churning surf as coiling abstracted forms. The subtly modulated sea and earth tones evoke the play of light in the peninsula’s shallow, rocky coves. She composes each element with precise, assured strokes of pigment to create sharply delineated contours and a lush surface. O’Keeffe came to consider color as essential to form, once explaining that she visualized shapes in her mind that she could not translate onto canvas or paper until she could identify the appropriate colors with which to portray them. “I work with an idea for a long time,” she explained. “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” (as quoted in Calvin Tomkins, 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).
Rising dramatically from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the rugged Gaspé Peninsula splits into five distinct natural areas: the Coast, Land's End, the Chaleur Bay, the Valley, and the Upper Gaspé. O’Keeffe first visited the region during the summer of 1932, as she sought to escape the pressures of life with Alfred Stieglitz and his family at their home in Lake George, New York. She made two trips to Gaspé —her first trip began on June 8, 1932, when she set off from Lake George with Stieglitz’s niece, Georgia Engelhard, in search of new subjects to paint in Canada. Later that summer in August, O’Keeffe and “Little Georgia,” as she was fondly called, took a longer, three-week trip to Quebec. Driving through Montreal, they pushed forward to Cap-des-Rosiers on the far eastern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula. On August 17, 1932, she wrote to Stieglitz from the coast with a description of her surroundings that emulates the visual qualities of Nature Forms – Gaspé: “We got out of the car to take a walk and found a cabin under trees over a grand high rock and the sea with a sandy beach below that is so perfect we can’t believe it is true—The sandy beach protected by high rocks at either end and magnificent rocks rising up behind it very high—soft sort of velvety rocks—and out behind a vast cliff that the gulls and wild geese seem to think their own—There is a waterfall rushing down to the sandy beach at one end—a wild fiercely cold one—and at the other end another fall that comes down in fine spray over rich green moss” (as quoted in Sarah Greenough, ed., My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933, New Haven, Connecticut, p. 652).
O’Keeffe’s cropped composition grants merely a glimpse into the subject’s larger context. As the muse and wife of Stieglitz, she 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 their isolation, simplification and magnification of these forms. O’Keeffe’s dialogue with the photographs of Stieglitz and his colleague Paul Strand is evident in Nature Forms – Gaspé, which similarly emphasizes formal qualities like shape and pattern over object identification. Rather than create an exact likeness of nature, the Stieglitz Circle artists sought to reduce it to its most essential forms, which then served as a framework upon which they could express a profound emotional state. “Nothing is less real than realism,” O’Keeffe said in 1922. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things” (as quoted in Jonathan Stulman and Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction, West Palm Beach, Florida, 2007, p. 22). In Nature Forms – Gaspé, O’Keeffe’s brushstrokes seem to float forward into space, pushing against the two-dimensional picture plane to impart a full, immersive experience of the natural and spiritual worlds, a precursor to the sublime gestural painting of the Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell.
While she was praised for the uniqueness of her style from the earliest years of her career, O’Keeffe’s imagery and style was consciously linked with that of another American modernist, Arthur Dove. Prominent art critics of the day such as Paul Rosenfeld positioned Dove as her male aesthetic counterpart. “Dove is very directly the man in painting,” Rosenfeld wrote in 1924, “precisely as Georgia O’Keeffe is the female; neither type has been known in quite the degree of purity before” (Arthur G. Dove," Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns, New York, 1924, p. 170). Nature Forms – Gaspé relates to Dove’s work from the period in its treatment of form and texture. She achieves a sense of active motion through the repetition of geometric and organic shapes and the expressive brushwork she utilizes to render them. Consequently, the work is emblematic of the artists’ shared belief in the rhythms and dynamism inherent to the natural world.
While nearly always rooted in the organic forms she observed in the world around her, whether in the Gaspé Peninsula or Abiquiu, New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s best works ultimately serve as meditations on the formal qualities of color, line and form, and the ability of these qualities to communicate deeper emotions and subjective meanings. In an interview conducted only a few years prior to her completion of the present work, O’Keeffe summarized her creative philosophy: “that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector. I attribute what little success I have to this fact" (as quoted B. Vladimir Berman, "She Painted the Lily and Got $25,000 and Fame for Doing It," New York Evening Graphic Magazine Section, May 12, 1928, p. 3M). As the scholar Charles C. Eldredge wrote, “Release from the representational imperative brought not only freedom for formal invention [for O’Keeffe], but also for the exploration of subjective states” (“Skunk Cabbages, Seasons & Series,” in Georgia O’Keeffe: Natural Issues 1918-1924, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1992, p. 40). Nature Forms – Gaspé reveals O’Keeffe’s unrelenting desire to push representational painting towards the essential, to seek the spiritual and transcendent quality of the natural world through abstraction.