Georgia O'Keeffe painted Black Petunia and White Morning-Glory I during a highly productive period in her life. In the 1920's, she spent nearly every summer away from the city, at her husband and dealer Alfred Stieglitz's family home at Lake George. The natural world provided a rich source of subject matter that filled her imagination, but it was her ground-breaking images of flowers – large-scale paintings of magnified and ever voluptuous blossoms – that captured the New York art world's attention and drew the greatest response. She wrote "If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."
O'Keeffe's earliest explorations of the flower as a subject were tentative and on a small scale, but by 1924 her approach had grown from somewhat traditional still-life arrangements to close-up studies of the blossoms themselves. A petunia was the subject of O'Keeffe's first large-scale floral image, Petunia No. 2 (1924, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, illustrated), an extraordinary prelude to her mature work. Returning to the petunia at least a half dozen times in 1925, she began to disregard the stem and leaves, and concentrate the focus on the depth of color and form in the blossom. Her most developed and refined treatment of the petunia appears in the 1926 Black Petunia and White Morning Glory series, in which the juxtaposition of the two flowers, one a delicate pinkish-white, the other a densely colored purple-black, create a complex mirror image relationship of positive and negative space. Neither flower dominates the composition, but the two together produce an ethereal balance in spite of the bold contrast of light and dark. By the third and final picture of the series, Black Petunia and White Morning-Glory III (The Cleveland Museum of Art, illustrated), the morning glory's voluminous white interior has outgrown the illusion of the canvas' spatial boundaries and nearly subsumes the black petunia which has been relegated to only a small sliver of canvas at the bottom of the composition.
1926 was a remarkable year for O'Keeffe and the critical reception of her work. The exhibition of works from 1926 at The Intimate Gallery featured her Black Petunia and White Morning Glory series and included notable works such as Black Iris (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Pink Tulip (The Baltimore Museum of Art), The Shelton with Sun Spots (Art Institute of Chicago) and her well-known Shell and Shingle series. This exhibition created a sensation, earning her important critical recognition. In his review of the 1926 painting exhibition, Henry Mc Bride wrote: "[O'Keeffe] always drew large petunias, but now she makes them the size of pumpkins. The petunia occupies the entire canvas, almost, with just a little bit of blue at the far edge to indicate sky or water. Decorators accept them willingly and seem to know how to place them so that they become doubly attractive. Certain others obtain hidden meanings from them. It is clear that Mr. Oscar Bluemner does, with his reference to Dionysian cults and the Eternal Woman. Miss O'Keefe [sic] is fond of gradations of tone, and with infinite patience pursues a purple down a petunia's throat until she arrives at the very gates of – I was going to say hell, but I mustn't say that, though the very fact that I was going to say it shows that this priestess of mystery known as Miss O'Keefe almost had me in her power. Ladies said last year that gazing into O'Keefe's petunias gave them the strangest imaginable sensations and as the petunias are larger and better this year than ever before, I shall await an account of a ladies' day at this exhibition with real interest."
O'Keeffe's flower pictures served as the catalyst for the endless psycho-sexual speculation that surrounded her work thereafter. Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote in 1925 that "the art of Georgia O'Keeffe is made manifest the classical dream of walking naked on Broadway.... O'Keeffe externalizes the frustration of her true being out on to canvases which, [receive] her outpouring [of] sexual juices" (O'Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916-1929, p. 101). Louis Kalonyme later wrote that her paintings were "the nakedly revealed world of this Texan woman's pure female art" (New York Sun, January 14, 1928). In Stieglitz's efforts to promote O'Keeffe's career, he promulgated the notion of her art as a manifestation of her eroticism and deftly manipulated the critical perception of her work in that direction. Yet as Charles Eldredge observed, "To read O'Keeffe's flowers ... simply as 'portraits of feminine states of feeling and mind,' is to reduce them to one dimensional erotic Rorschach tests. O'Keeffe was certainly familiar with the traditional associations clustered about her subjects. As a self-conscious modernist, she was aware as well of the more novel interpretations given to the blossoms. As a formalist, she was also attuned to the artistic possibilities that close study of flower afforded. Her achievement rests in creating memorable images which layer form and disparate meaning in rich and complex patterns" (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1991, p. 90).
If O'Keeffe's interest in flowers likely spoke more of her preoccupation with color and form, then their organic shapes lent themselves to the prevailing winds of abstraction. Her emphasis on natural subject matter, of which flowers were only one example, was also shared by contemporary photographers. Eldredge has discussed that "O'Keeffe's close study of her subjects in the 1920s paralleled the explorations of photographers.... Stieglitz, [Paul] Strand, and others were similarly using the camera's close-focus capacity to extract abstract patterns from a variety of subjects both natural and man-made. In 1927, just as O'Keeffe was plumbing the depths of the calla, the iris, and other blossoms, Edward Weston was turning his camera toward still-life compositions of another natural form, the graceful spiral of the chambered nautilus. His striking designs of the shells' round and smooth surfaces were, in the natural inspiration and visual effect, similar to O'Keeffe's flowers; and like her still lifes, his photographs elicited varied interpretations, including the sexual." (Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 88).
O'Keeffe's flower paintings of the 1920s are among her most innovative and original contributions to early 20th century American art and to the ongoing discourse of modern art later in the century. As Elizabeth Glassman observes, "Her art does not represent an age gone by, but rather, the brilliance of an American painter whose intuitions remain as provocative today as they were when her work was exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz on the walls of 291" (Georgia O'Keeffe: American and Modern, 1993, p. 11).
Oil on canvas
New York, The Intimate Gallery, Georgia O'Keeffe: Paintings 1926, January-February 1927
Brooklyn, New York, The Brooklyn Museum, Paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, June-September 1927, no. 2
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Georgia O'Keeffe, May-August 1946, no. 23
30 by 36 in. (76.2 by 91.4 cm)
Nicholas Callaway, ed., Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1987, illustrated in color p. 37
Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, no. 559, p. 318, illustrated in color
Gift to the present owner from Anita O'Keeffe Young (the artist's sister), 1960