“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” - William Allen White
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887. Between 1905 and 1916 she studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Students League of New York, University of Virginia, and Teachers College of Columbia University. Her intention was to become an art teacher, and between 1908 and 1917 she taught studio classes at schools in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina. In 1916, O’Keeffe’s drawings first came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz (the important photographer and influential promoter of modern art), whom she married in 1924. Until his death in 1946, he regularly exhibited O’Keeffe’s paintings and drawings at his New York galleries, which helped establish her reputation as a leading American artist.
For more than seventy years O’Keeffe painted prolifically, and almost exclusively, images from nature distilled to their essential colours, shapes, and designs. Prior to 1929 she derived her subjects from her life in New York City (buildings and city views) and from long summers in the country at Lake George, in upstate New York (flowers and landscapes). After 1929, when she made the first of many extended trips to New Mexico, her interest shifted to objects and scenery that characterised the American Southwest (bones and mountains). In 1949 the artist moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she resided until her death at age ninety-eight on March 6, 1986.
O’Keeffe’s early pictures were basically imitative, but by the early 1920s her own highly individualistic style of painting had emerged. Frequently her subjects were enlarged views of skulls and other animal bones, flowers and plant organs, shells, rocks, mountains, and other natural forms. O’Keeffe delineated these forms with probing and subtly rhythmic outlines and delicately modulated washes of clear colour. Her mysteriously suggestive images of bones and flowers set against a perspectiveless space inspired a variety of erotic, psychologic, and symbolic interpretations.
“Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills” (1935), exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum, is a typical painting of O’Keeffe’s highly personal style. This painting features an enlarged ram’s skull and antlers hovering emblematically over landscape and sky; the flower is an addendum that contrasts life with death, softness with sharp hardness. The organic lines and complex orifices of these nearly abstract forms conjure associations both phallic and feminine. Sexuality was a complicated issue for O’Keeffe. She famously denied that her landscapes or flower paintings were allegories of the female form, yet their lineage is obviously physical. In both cases, she asserted her own vision of the female body, camouflaged with protective layers of meaning.
In the 1930s, when this painting was executed, artists, musicians, and writers were interested in developing an indigenous American art form. It was an idea strongly supported by Stieglitz and his circle of artists, who sought to develop an American style of painting, rather than depictions of American subjects as produced by the Regionalists and the Social Realists. The painting is symbolic of America as O’Keeffe saw it, represented by the New Mexico desert and its relics.