Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and the Lake George Paintings

Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunia No. 2, 1924. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Gift of The Burnett Foundation and Gerald and Kathleen Peters (1996.03.002) © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Used with permission.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunia No. 2, 1924. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Gift of The Burnett Foundation and Gerald and Kathleen Peters (1996.03.002) © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Used with permission.

When people think of Georgia O’Keeffe, they see the iconic image she cultivated during her years in the American Southwest. But from 1918 until 1934, prior to moving to New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent most of each year at Alfred Stieglitz’ family estate in Lake George, NY, where she produced some of her greatest, most innovative and pioneering work. The flower paintings for which she became famous, often associated with her Southwest years, were actually created in Lake George.

Why has O’Keeffe’s connection to Lake George never been given the same attention as her attraction to New Mexico?

Perhaps it’s due to all that’s been written about how much O’Keeffe disliked Lake George. According to certain texts, she was miserable and felt overwhelmed by the intrusiveness of the Stieglitz family. She was even said to be uninspired by the scenery. Lake George is portrayed as an “annoyance” from which she continually tried to escape. Yet despite these negative connotations, O’Keeffe’s Lake George years were among the most productive of her career. She created over 200 paintings on canvas and paper during this period. Including her sketches, Georgia O’Keeffe created a total of 821 works in Lake George.

But if Georgia O’Keeffe wasn’t happy in Lake George, why did she create so many paintings there and what was the importance of Lake George in the life and career of the artist? 

That’s the question Erin Coe, chief curator at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, began asking following her visit to a 2009 exhibition at the Clark Art Museum that featured some of O’Keeffe’s seldom-seen Lake George paintings. Inspired to create an exhibition on the artist’s Lake George paintings, Coe reached out to Barbara Buhler Lynes who, at the time, was the curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico and is recognized as the world’s premier authority on O’Keeffe. Thus began a four-year journey into researching material for the show, Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George. The wealth of documentation was astonishing. Coe began sifting through all the letters written during the artist’s Lake George years and even went as far as hiking Prospect Mountain, which O’Keeffe did regularly for inspiration. The thesis for the exhibition soon became clear. While much has been written about the fascinating psychology of the artist, the show wouldn’t be about that. It wouldn’t be about the relationship between O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the art impresario who “discovered” her talent and whom she later married.

The exhibition would be about O’Keeffe and a place called Lake George.

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Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George is an ambitious and groundbreaking exhibition organized by the Hyde Collection, in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and curated by Erin Coe. The exhibition examines the extraordinary body of work created by the artist at Lake George and is “the first exhibition to illuminate the formative influence that this place had on the artist’s work.”

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I attended the opening at the Hyde last weekend and although, as a docent for the Hyde, I had advance knowledge of the artwork that was to be exhibited, I could not have imagined how powerful that exhibition would be to experience.

Brilliantly arranged by theme with large images of O’Keeffe accompanied by her quotes at every turn, you feel her presence in the gallery, watching as you wander from painting to painting, as any artist does during their opening reception. Coe makes Georgia O’Keeffe come alive.

Here is a selection of highlights from the exhibition, with descriptions from Erin Coe’s notes on the show.

In the Abstraction section at the beginning of the exhibition, From the Lake, No. 3 (1924) exemplifies O’Keeffe’s practice of intense and up-close observation as she gazes down into the water at the lake.

Lake George with Crows (1921) was one of O’Keeffe’s first landscape paintings. It was inspired by the view from her bedroom window that was located at the front of the Stieglitz farmhouse on the hill, as evidenced by the wisp of a sheer curtain along the right side of the painting. Here, according to Coe, we see O’Keeffe engaging with Lake George as a place. This is one of the paintings that Coe saw at the Clark that inspired her to create this exhibition.

Moving on to Barns and Buildings, we see a painting of O’Keeffe’s humble art studio on the Stieglitz farm, a renovated rustic building she called My Shanty (1922). Although it is a departure from her usual style, Lake George Barns (1926). has been called a masterpiece by art historians and curators alike. A pair of paintings hung side-by-side further reinforces O’Keeffe’s deep connection to Lake George. Flag Pole (Stieglitz’ darkroom that was a former shed on the property) was painted in 1925 in Lake George. Flag Pole and White House was painted over 30 years later, after O’Keeffe had left Lake George for Santa Fe, proving that the influence of Lake George remained with the artist.

In Tree Portraits, we find O’Keeffe treating her natural subjects as people. She calls them portraits, as they reminded her of people, with her imagery drawing illusions to relationships.

The room with the From the Garden paintings, however, is what stopped everyone in their tracks. That’s where you recognize the familiar flowers that took the New York art world by storm.

Petunia No. 2 (pictured at the top of this article) was not only one of O’Keefe’s first large-scale flower paintings, but it was also among the first to be exhibited.

The entire Jack-in-the-Pulpit series (1930) is there. This series is the last of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and they are seldom linked to Lake George. There is also one Red Canna (1919) painting in the show, out of the twenty she painted in Lake George.

This is where you finally understand the quote O’Keeffe wrote in a preface for a 1939 exhibition of her work, “…I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me. But I’ll paint it big. And they’ll be surprised into taking time to look at it. I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see in flowers.”

Nobody wanted to leave the exhibition. You feel as if you want to stay there forever.

But we are then offered the last series, Lake George Souvenirs, the oak leaves, autumn leaves and fall maples that O’Keeffe collected as inspiration for future paintings. Souvenirs. We all took a mental souvenir of our visit.

In the early 1930s, Georgia O’Keeffe started spending more time in New Mexico, where she finally found a personal resonance. But as this exhibition suggests, Lake George played an important role in her life and the evolution of her artistic career. She took Lake George with her as a souvenir, like so many autumn leaves, providing fertile ground for the work she would create in the Southwest.

There is a concurrent exhibit at the Hyde on the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz: A Family Album: Alfred Stieglitz and Lake George that offers insights into “life on the hill” at the Stieglitz farm.

Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George continues at the Hyde Collection through September 15, 2013. The exhibition will then travel to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.

EXHIBITION SCHEDULE:

June 15 – September 15, 2013   Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York
October 4, 2013 – January 26, 2014   Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico
February 15 – May 11, 2014   deYoung Museum – Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California

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