Georgia O’Keeffe needs no introduction to people familiar with the world of art. To many she continues to be an inspiring artistic icon.
I first encountered O’Keeffe’s art in School.
Of all Georgia O’Keeffe paintings she is perhaps best known for her paintings of flowers. Many flower paintings were as though O’Keeffe was examining them through a large magnifying glass.
While undoubtedly Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers are a thing of beauty, through the 1920s, they were being interpreted by some as erotic or perhaps sexual in nature. However, O’Keeffe had denied that the flowers represented the vulva or any other sexual organ as some people claimed. Despite her denials it continues to be a pretty common assumption even today. What do you think? I’m not sure. People read all sort of things into my paintings that aren’t true and to be frank, sometimes surprise me.
Jimson Weed (1932)
Out of all Georgia O’Keeffe flowers, Jimson Weed was the one that many believe brought her into the mainstream art world. The oil on linen painting, currently located in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, depicts four large Jimson weed blossoms.
Jimson Weed was originally called “Miracle Flower” and was commissioned by Elizabeth Arden for her Gymnasium Moderne located in her salon on Fifth Avenue, New York City. Arden apparently paid $10,000 for the painting which was meant to encourage clients to exercise more. It later became known as the largest ever floral composition that O’Keeffe would paint. It was the amongst the most expensive paintings by a female artist when auctioned in 2014 for $44,405,000.
The Red Canna is a painting of the canna lily plant and was painted first with watercolours in 1915, and later as abstract pieces of close-up images in oil paint. Out of all Georgia O’Keeffe flower paintings, these were the most criticized for looking like female genitalia. However, O’Keeffe had said many times that her paintings were misconstrued. Does it matter? I don’t think so.
O’Keeffe said that was unaware of any sexual references. Yet male art critiques seemed obsessed with this and perhaps didn’t see the pure beauty in the work. And if you think about it, flowers do inherently have the means of reproducing in their structure – even I know that and I’m not an expert gardener, having just taken up the hobby. O’keeffe’s use of vibrant colours across all these flower paintings is an expression of her creativity and didn’t have any sexual or gender messages – that was the official line.
The Freudian Theory
But there is a twist in the tale as they say. Alfred Stieglitz, a prominent American photographer, emphatically believed that O’keeffe’s flower paintings were more erotic in nature than the painter openly admitted. O’keeffe’s view was that people saw what they wanted to see in her paintings and any sexual undertones where in their mind and not in her intentions. Again, I’m thinking does it matter? But perhaps it did more in the 1930s than it does now and I can see that these flower paintings would have been seen as risqué at least and were part of an avant garde art movement. Stieglitz become O’Keeffe’s husband.
I think O’keeffe was very good at marketing and knew it was probably better to keep the sexual theories behind her work going.
An Iconic Female Artist
Whether it is the oriental poppies painting or iconic the white flowers, O’Keeffe continued to be an icon not just in the world of art but later in the women’s empowerment movement. Though the 1970s, her art and in particular her flower paintings continued to be prominent symbols in the women’s movement.
In 1993 O’keeffe was added to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in America for her artwork and her place in the women’s rights movement. Although having read the listing on their website I’m not impressed that they are essentially saying that her husband made her famous.
O’keeffe painted all of her life and she loved it saying “art is a wicked thing. It is what we are”.