Paintings You Should Know: Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Petunia, No. 2’

“I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Okeeffe Petunia No 2 1925
Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunia, No. 2, 1924

Okeeffe 1918
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t only paint flowers, but she did paint rather a lot of them. Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, she knew from the age of ten that she wanted to be a painter, but her early training in watercolour painting and the representational style popular at the time left her cold, and in 1908 she gave up painting for several years. However, in 1912 she was introduced to the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, who believed that artists should express themselves through their individual use of line, colour and shading. Several years later, while training to be a teacher, she met and studied under Dow. It was also around this time, in 1916, that she met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who owned an art gallery in New York. Stieglitz provided tremendous encouragement to O’Keeffe, and arranged the first exhibition of her work. Although he was married and 23 years her senior, they fell in love and were wed in 1924, just four months after his divorce from his first wife was granted. Although they would continue to live largely autonomous lives they remained married until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

O’Keeffe began working in oils in late 1918, and Petunia, No. 2 was her first large-scale flower painting. And it is large-scale, measuring 76.2cm by 91.44cm. At the time, O’Keeffe is recorded as saying “nobody really sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time… 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.” It is displayed today at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the town where she lived and worked, and which inspired much of her art, for many years. Incidentally, some of O’Keeffe’s flowers may appear a tad… suggestive. O’Keeffe herself always maintained that this was unintentional. In other words, if you see anything other than flowers you have a dirty mind.

In the 1970s, O’Keeffe began to lose her sight due to macular degeneration, and by 1972 she had given up working with oils although she continued sketching in pencil and charcoal until 1984.  She was introduced to pottery by Juan Hamilton, a young potter who originally came to her ranch in 1973 looking for work. He became her close confidante and business manager until her death in 1986, which caused some strife within her family after it emerged in her will that she had left her entire estate to him (the matter was ultimately settled out of court). As well as a museum, her life and work have been celebrated in books, films, and several postage stamps, and she continues to be remembered today as the mother of American Modernism.

So, how dirty is your mind? If you see anything other than pretty flowers… please DON’T let me know!

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