You don’t need to be in love with the world around you to paint it—Georgia O’Keeffe demonstrated that over some 15 or more extended summers in Lake George, NY, surrounded by mountains and dense woods, during which time she painted more than 200 paintings.
Starting in 1918, O’Keeffe spent 5 months each year at the Stieglitz family retreat in Lake George, as lover & protégée to famed photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. While Santa Fe was the place that called to her spiritually, a large part of her esthetic was developed first at Lake George, growing over the later years (1929-1934) as she traveled back and forth between the two places (chronology here).
O’Keeffe’s distinctively macro view of the natural world was quite probably formed by her unique reaction to the grand scale of the Adirondack landscape. She wrote of feeling “confined” and overwhelmed by “the green.” She may have also been overwhelmed by the size of Lake George, the largest of the Adirondack lakes at 32 miles long, or the 11 mountains that surround it, and so she reduced the forms to understand them, examining one tree, and handful of leaves, or one flower on large canvasses.
Her 1924 painting, From The Lake, captures the movement and abstract color pattern of Lake George without rendering its likeness as so many other painters did before her. Her palette, from the start, was a rich canopy of color that stood out instantly from the muted parade of paintings coming out of the Hudson River School. O’Keeffe gravitated towards the bright blues of the sky, the bright purples and reds of the flowers, and especially the browns and golds of the trees in fall.
The one color she developed an aversion to was the green that papered the entire Adirondack landscape. By the 1930s, she wrote to another painter that, “I walk much and endure the green and that is about all there is to it.”
As a lover of both the Adirondacks and landscape painting in general, I have to admit that the appeal of O’Keeffe’s work was lost on me for some time. That was, until the extraordinary exhibit now showing at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, just a few miles from where the Stieglitz summer home once stood.
It’s hard to imagine that the fluidity of these paintings, the sloping, rolling, curling and twisting lines that so invoke her style could have been formed in the harsh landscape of the New Mexico desert, for these are the lines of the Adirondacks, old mountains and natural lakes, winding rivers and trees that curve to meet the shores.
The exhibit captures all of this through several important series of O’Keefe’s paintings. The tree series are a collection of large paintings in surprisingly soft colors, painted in summer and fall. Rather than the angled lines so often associated with trees, in O’Keeffe’s vision the boughs spiral. She also painted a leaf series, examining closely the fabrics of each kind of foliage. There are the usual barns and longer landscapes, including some clever aerial views, suggesting her early experiments with abstract forms.
But her brilliance really begins to shine with the giant flower paintings she began while at Lake George in the early to mid 1920s. Two of her most provocative series are exhibited at the Hyde, the petunias, and my personal favorite, a 5-canvas series of Jacks in the Pulpit. She also began her famous exploration of red, discovering the true heart of her palette—or maybe the palette of her heart, with her paintings of the red canna flower.
Her understanding of the nature of color and form becomes intuitively obvious when you stand at various distances to the life-sized paintings. The exotic linear patterns and curvatures form spectacularly beautiful shapes of color, which as you move closer, separate. And her continuous exploration through multiple vantage points and focal lengths also becomes clear, suggesting she was something of a scientist in her approach.
As a museum, it’s worth noting that the Hyde Collection is one of the true little gems among art museums in the northeast. It is situated in the former home of Louis Fiske Hyde and Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, designed by Boston architect Henry Forbes Bigelow at 161 Warren Street in downtown Glens Falls. And one of the great delights to this museum is to wander the fully appointed rooms with guest beds, night stands, tabolets, etc., all so completely preserved that you feel as if you might be staying there yourself….until you look up and see the original Winslow Homer next to the closet, or the El Greco, the two Rubens (one of which is stunning), the Rembrandt, the two Renoirs—quite the personal collection.
The “Georgia O’Keeffe on Lake George” show is at the Hyde Collection for the summer of 2013. closing on September 15th to move on to its next natural stop at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of Santa Fe, NM for the winter before concluding at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Suggested Reading: “Modern Nature—Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” compiled and edited by Erin B. Coe, Gwendolyn Owens and Bruce Robertson. Thames and Hudson, 2013.
© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.
All photos reprinted with permission from the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY.