The "Native" America

In 1931, art critic Thomas Craven urged American artists to stop being influenced by modern European styles and to look at America for inspiration. Craven wrote in Men of Art , "It means that if we are ever to have an indigenous expression, it will be an art proceeding from strong native impulses, simple ideas, and popular tastes, an art reflecting the color and character of the machine age" (506). In the 30s there was a surge of Nationalism as individuals began to adapt to new ways of life thanks to FDR's New Deal. "The idea of culture became domesticated" (154) according to Warren Sussman. This resurgence of Nationalism manifested itself in "the more complex effort to seek and to define America as a culture and to create the patterns of a way of life worth understanding" (Sussman 157).

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1930
Georgia O'Keeffe , 1930. Alfred Stieglitz

The American Scene

Stone City, Iowa 1930
Stone City, Iowa 1930, Grant Wood

In the 1920's the Stieglitz group had been trying to define what was distinctly American and to create an "American" art. Georgia O'Keeffe remained skeptical about the integrity of the Stieglitz circle and their commitment to representing "America" in art. O'Keeffe commented "they all sit around and talk about the great American novel and the great American poetry, but they all would have stepped right across the ocean and stayed in Paris if they could have. Not me. I had things to do in my own country." (From the Faraway Nearby 33) O'Keeffe's paintings from the 1930's do not fall into the categories of regionalism and social realism, the two schools of painting favored by the American Scene painters of the 1930's like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.

Cradling Wheat, 1938
Cradling Wheat 1938, Thomas Hart Benton
Hailstorm 1940
Hailstorm 1940, Thomas Hart Benton

O'Keeffe's most famous skull painting, Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue , (1931) is her tongue-in-cheek response to all of the artists who were trying to define "American" art. O'Keeffe said, "People wanted to "do" the American scene. I had gone back and forth across the country several times by then, and some of the current ideas about the American scene struck me as pretty ridiculous. To them, the American scene was a dilapidated house with a broken down buckboard out front and a horse that looked like a skeleton. I knew America was very rich, very lush…For goodness' sake, I thought, the people who talk about the American scene don't know anything about it. So, in a way, that cow's skull was my joke on the American scene, and it gave me pleasure to make it in red, white, and blue." (qtd. in Messinger 76).

Cow's Skull:  Red, White and Blue, 1931
Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1952.

Crucified Land
Crucified Land with inset detail

The Landscape

The American scene that O'Keeffe is describing with the "dilapidated house" and a "horse that looked like a skeleton" directly addresses the type of paintings done by artist Alexandre Hogue. Hogue was best known for his Dust Bowl paintings from the 1930's. Unlike O'Keeffe, who avoided making overt social commentary in her artwork, Hogue's paintings address the issue of humans interrupting the inherent balance in nature by abusing the landscape. Between 1932-1939 over 300 dust storms affected areas in Texas, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, eastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma panhandle.

Drouth Stricken
Drouth Stricken
Detail from 'Drouth Stricken'
Detail from Drouth Stricken
Dust Bowl
Dust Bowl , 1933

Unlike Hogue, Georgia O'Keeffe envisioned a different Southwest. Her landscape paintings reveal a vibrancy of color and texture in the land. The cavernous indentations in the hills are reminiscent of both the skyscraper and flower images of the 1920's. O'Keeffe's most popular work in the 30's, however, took the form in her animal bone paintings .

Small Purple Hills
Small Purple Hills, 1934. Private Collection.
Gray Hills
Gray Hill Forms , 1936. University Art Museum, University of New Mexico. From the estate of Georgia O'Keeffe.
View From My Studio
View From My Studio, New Mexico , 1930. Private Collection.
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