The magnified images of flowers that Georgia O'Keeffe painted in the 1920s and 1930s became her best known and most celebrated paintings. These years dedicated to exploration and development of floral themes yielded some of the most important works of her oeuvre, as focusing on floral subjects freed O'Keeffe to concentrate on color and form. Dramatic large scale oils such as Calla Lilies with Red Anemone, executed in 1928, characterize her finest work.
In Calla Lilies with Red Anemone, O'Keeffe creates a perfect balance of form and color, emphasizing the natural harmonies of the flowers and of nature. A dark yellow stamen pierces each of the two white lilies, the vivid splash of color serving to balance the pure white petals of the blossom. The intense deep black and fiery red of the anemone, in turn, attracts the viewer's eye and grounds and balances the entire composition. Though smaller and somewhat less developed than the lilies which bisect and obscure it, the anemone's strong color makes it an effective counterpoint.
Many scholars have remarked on O'Keeffe's creative, aesthetic, and artistic affinity for the fiery reds and oranges that she used throughout her career. It is well known that much of her inspiration came from the summer and autumn months spent at Lake George with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. While she painted year round, "she came to feel that autumn was her time for painting. She was rested, often alone with Stieglitz, and with many feelings and images stored from her summer out-of-doors... Many of her finest Lake George paintings were done at this time of year in October colors." (L. Lisle, Portrait of an Artist, New York, 1986, p. 197) It is possible to relate the red of the anemone in the present work to the artist's affinity for fall colors, a relationship that develops fully in her series of poppy paintings from the same year.
Throughout her career, color remained as important to O'Keeffe's artistic spirit as form and content, and her bold and innovative palette is the common thread running through her entire career. In Becoming O'Keeffe, Sarah Peters argues that much of the artist's philosophy about the use of color was inspired by Wasilly Kandinsky's color theories. Further, Elizabeth Hutton Turner in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things argues that O'Keeffe followed the symbolist aesthetic, experimenting with color to achieve an emotional impact equivalent to what she felt when examining the natural plant. Whatever the relevance of these theories, O'Keeffe's choice of colors is also quite clearly firmly tied to the discipline of exact observation of the natural world.
O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the forms and colors found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from wonderfully sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest objects such as autumn leaves, skunk cabbage and animal bones found their way equally into O'Keeffe's paintings. In 1944, the artist said: "I have picked flowers where I found them--Have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. vi)
During the period that O'Keeffe executed Calla Lilies with Red Anemone she was also experimenting with serial images of other plant forms, including poppies and skunk cabbage. This working method was typical of the artist, as she often created series of four, five or six canvases painted on a single theme. O'Keeffe painted Calla Lilies with Red Anemone as part of a series of six oils of lilies, and said: "I work with an idea for a long time. 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."
Truly modern paintings, O'Keeffe's flower images evoke photography in their abstract magnified, detailed images and cropped compositions. Though the artist denied the influence of photography on her art, her relationship with Stieglitz makes the possibility seem likely. Patterson Sims wrote: "Her direct observation of lush natural details has antecedents on the photographs of de Meyer, Sheeler, and Steichen, and parallels in the contemporary photographs of Blossfeldt, Cunningham, Hagemeyer, and Strand. O'Keeffe's magnifications also developed simultaneously with the beginning of Stieglitz's detail-oriented photo portrait of her. The atmosphere of innovation in which O'Keeffe operated was thus as directed toward photography as it was toward painting." (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1981, p. 23)
It would be possible to read O'Keeffe's skillfully crafted, precisely rendered, almost photographic images as little more than literal renderings of their subjects, concerned solely with verisimilitude and eliminating all traces of the artist. Marjorie Balge-Crozier, however, argues for a more personal reading of these pictures, "combined with the enlarged, close-up view of the object, O'Keeffe's technique offers an assertive brand of realism that prompts a more modern, emotional involvement with the subject, an involvement heightened by the fact that the subject is abstracted just enough to remind us that it is not solely the 'thing' it purports to be. It can be many things, including a surrogate for the artist herself." (Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 74) Indeed, scholars, critics and collectors have long argued for a sexual interpretation of O'Keeffe's images of flowers, particularly the calla lilies series-something that the artist always tried to deny.
As is true with all of O'Keeffe's finest works, the strength of Calla Lilies with Red Anemone lies in its careful balance of realism and abstraction, its wonderful synthesis of form and color. As Charles Demuth wrote to O'Keeffe after seeing her 1926 exhibition: "Your colour was the most exciting thing in this years art world. Why it has not been more mentioned shows, for me, how stupid the art (painting) writers are; there it is looking like no colour has looked before and nothing said. When we have our houses you must do my music room, --just allow that red and yellow spread until it fills the room. That would be grand. Perhaps it would not even, then, be necessary to have anyone play in this music room." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 59)
Calla Lillies with Red Anenome retains its original O'Keeffe frame. The artist frequently designed frames for her works, carefully balancing them with their images to create unified and unique presentations. A letter from O'Keeffe to Mrs. Ehrman reads: "I have been working on the frame for the painting you acquired when you were here. It ought to be ready to send to you by the end of next week." (Fig. 1) The letter closes with the post-script: "I have put my star and my name on the back of your painting." O'Keeffe rarely signed her works, rendering the signature on the back of Calla Lillies with Red Anenome all the more personal and valuable.
A letter dated January 18, 1939 from Georgia O'Keeffe to the original owner of this work accompanies the lot.
Calla Lillies with Red Anenome
Oil on gessoed masonite
PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF EDITH K. EHRMAN
Signed with star device and 'OK,' signed again and dated 'Georgia O'Keeffe 1928' on the reverse
New York, The Intimate Gallery, Georgia O'Keeffe: Paintings, 1928, February-March 1929
48 x 29 5/8 in. (121.9 x 75.2 cm.)
"Nat'l Art Week, Nov. 25-Dec. 1," Independent Woman, November 1940, p. 347, illustrated
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe, Volume One, Washington, D.C., 1999, no. 630, p. 371, illustrated
An American Place, New York.
Mrs. Ehrman, San Francisco, California, purchased from the above, 1939. By bequest to Mr. and Mrs. Frederick L. Ehrman, New York, 1959.