Women in
the West

After accepting Mabel Dodge Luhan's initial invitation to spend the summer of 1929 at her lodge in Taos, NM Georgia O'Keeffe returned each summer to the beauty of the southwest before settling there permanently after Stieglitz's death in 1946. O'Keeffe longed for her independence from the Stieglitz circle and the West offered her this much needed autonomy. Patricia Trenton notes, "the power to move from one place to another, to learn, to work, and wonder, made art possible for some women in the American West. Access to remote places embodied the dream of being beyond the reach of request or demand" (5). Furthermore, "Western women pushed the boundaries of femininity as nowhere else and never before. While American women as a whole did not win the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, women in most Western states had the right to vote before 1915 (Trenton 3-4). Many critics fail to note that O'Keeffe's visits to the Southwest also coincide with her devastation at learning of Stieglitz's affair with Dorothy Newman. Thus, the time O'Keeffe spent in the Southwest allowed her to seek solace from her own personal turmoil and break from the male-dominated Stieglitz group and explore on her own the way in which to depict "American" culture. O'Keeffe's method of defining the "native" America involved a reexamination of the nacent landscape and wildlife in the United States. While the Dust Bowl of the 1930s ravaged areas of the Southwest as captured by WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange, O'Keeffe offered an alternative vision of the region by presenting its beauty and spirituality in her paintings.

Georgia O'Keeffe at Yosemite National Park
Georgia O'Keeffe, Yosemite National Park, California , 1938. Ansel Adams.
O'Keeffe Gathering Bones
O'Keeffe gathering bones in the late 1930s.

Animal Skulls

Horse's Skull with White Rose, 1931
Horse's Skull with White Rose
1931. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Extended loan, private collection.

The most well-known artwork O'Keeffe produced during her summer visits to New Mexico are the paintings of animal skulls. O'Keeffe was fascinated by the animal skulls that she encountered while exploring the southwest landscape. Her thoughts on the bones reflect a sentiment similar to that of the Paul Strand and Edward Weston photographs, which attempt to capture the inner essence and therefore true "reality" of the thing. O'Keeffe's cow skulls and horse's skulls simultaneously create an eerily calming effect that is subtly menacing. The skull paintings can be seen to represent the death and destruction of the American landscape or they can be viewed as celebratory works that pay tribute to the animals that first inhabited the Western landscape. O'Keeffe's use of flowers in the animal skull paintings perplexed her critics. She explained that her idea to use flowers came about while she was sorting through some artificial flowers,

"when someone came to the kitchen door. As I went to answer the door, I stuck a pink rose in the eye socket of a horse's skull. And when I came back the rose looked pretty fine, so I thought I would just go with that."

Although the use of flowers is indicative of the Southwestern influence since artificial flowers are often used to decorate Hispanic graves, most eastern viewers of these paintings found them more surreal than anything else.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses
Cow's Skull with Calico Roses , 1932. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Horse's Skull with Pink Rose, 1931
Horse's Skull with Pink Rose , 1931. Private Collection. The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.
Cow's Skull on Red
Cow's Skull on Red , 1931-1936

Desert Quote

Summer Days
Summer Days, 1936. Collection of Calvin Klein.

The floating skulls proved even more enigmatic for viewers and critics alike. Ram's Skull with Hollyhock (right), the first painting in the floating skull series drew both wonder and praise from the critics and the public. Critic Henry McBride wondered, "the bleached skull with the rampant horns is beautiful. Is death then beautiful?" While some critics were eager to classify these works as Surrealist, Lewis Mumford provided an alternative interpretation in 1936, "O'Keeffe uses themes and juxtapositions no less unexpected than those of the Surréalistes, but she uses them in a fashion that makes them seem inevitable and natural, grave and beautiful."

Ram's Skull with Hollyhock, 1935
Ram's Skull with Hollyhock, 1935. Collection of Edith and Milton Lowenthal.
Ram's Skull with Brown Leaves
Ram's Skull with Brown Leaves
Mule's Skull with Pink Poinsettias
Mule's Skull with Pink Poinsettias, 1936. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation
From the Faraway Nearby
From the Faraway Nearby , 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1959.

Other Female Artists

Memory, 1937
Memory, 1937 Agnes Pelton. The Buck Collection.

Other female painters like Henrietta Shore, Agnes Pelton and Rebecca Strand (Paul Strand's wife) also depicted the West in their paintings but not in the same way that O'Keeffe did. Similarities are easily discernible in the use of color and technique in the Shore and Strand paintings. Pelton's artwork is reminiscent of O'Keeffe's early abstractions, yet her work was not as accessible as O'Keeffe's. Thanks to the marketing genius of Stieglitz and the praise of the New York critics, O'Keeffe was already a well-known and well-established artist once she began painting animal skulls. O'Keeffe remained the most popular female painter because even though her paintings challenged the notion of scale and perspective, the subject of her paintings could normally be identified by the untrained eye. Her paintings also revealed a sense of America pride in being a country with the magnificent city of New York and the alluring beauty and spirituality of the desert.

Elk Tooth and Magnolia, 1930s
Elk Tooth and Magnolia, c. 1930s Rebecca Salsbury (Strand) James. Mr Robert Ewing.
Cypress Trees, Point Lobos, 1930
Cypress Trees, Point Lobos , 1930 Henrietta Shore. Steve Turner, Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles.
Introduction | Site Map | Back to "Native" America | Sources