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Georgia O’Keeffe – Lake George with White Birch

6 Nov
From 1918 to 1934 the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, the established New York photographer, artist and art-promoter Alfred Stieglitz would spend some time every year, mostly summers, in Stieglitz’s family house north of the Lake George Village in Warrren County, New York. With few interesting exceptions (such as her paintings of the New York Skyscrapers in her Precisionist phase), O’Keeffe’s oeuvre consists mostly of paintings of nature and motives from nature. It is easy to see why she would find inspiration in the trees, the sky, flowery meadows, mountains, hills and barns, and the lake George itself.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George with White Birch, 1921

My favourite painting from her Lake George series is the one above called “Lake George with White Birch”, painted in 1921. I love it so much that I even have a print of it on my wall. The colours are so groovy and autumnal to me. I also love the composition; even though the Lake George is the main motif, it is actually hidden. Every other motif in the paintings takes our focus away from that little area of blue water. The purple mountains in the background and the rolling blue skies above them are so vibrant and exciting. The tall tree in the foreground is painting in a very beautiful, warm shade of green, and then there is the birch tree from the title; a delicate white creature with orange-yellowish leaves. All the colours blend out softly and yet stand out at the same time. To me, this painting, these colours, represent the groovy aspect of autumn when nature is screaming with vibrancy and abundancy. Only in autumn leaves on the same tree can be yellow, orange, red and green all at once.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1927

The other paintings from the Lake George series are all vibrant and beautiful, each in their way. “Lake George – Autumn”, painted in 1927, shows an array of truly autumnal colours. The trees in the foreground are painted in fiery shades of red, yellow and orange hues. My other favourite is the painting “Lake George – Autumn” from 1922. I love its deep, rich yet subtle autumnal shades; the red, brown and dark green foliage on the trees in the foreground appears as soft and feathery as a cloud. The blueness of the lake stands as a beautiful contrast to these deep burgundy shades. “Lake George Reflection”, painted in 1921-1922, shows a whole different side to the Lake George. It is hard even to tell in which season it was painted because the candy-like colours look out of this world. It’s almost hard to tell which side is showing the real lake and which the reflection, what is real and what is not.

O’Keeffe was a Mid-West girl, having been born in Sun Prairie, Winsconsin, but her life path took her to both to the Wild West and to the East Coast, and everywhere she went O’Keeffe found motives worthy of exploration. A simple flower would be of much inspiration to O’Keeffe, how inspiring then would a whole lake be and the surrounding landscape and the trees with the changing foliage throughout the seasons.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George – Autumn, 1922

The encounter between Georgia O’Keeffe and Stieglitz happened almost as an accident. Early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art. Stieglitz was amazed by O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings and he instantly wanted to share them with the world. And he did, by ehxibiting them in his famous avant-garde gallery. O’Keeffe was living in Canyon, Texas at the time and the two started exchanging letters.

By 1918 Stieglitz had arranged for O’Keeffe to come and live in New York; he would take care of the financial aspects and O’Keeffe could simply focus on her art. Stieglitz was married and more than twenty years her senior but that didn’t stop their relationship from blossoming. They eventually married in December 1924 and O’Keeffe, as expected for her independent and strong-willed character, didn’t utter the customary “love, honor and obey.” O’Keeffe was a strong and independent person and a true individualist, but her artistic career and her relationship with Stieglitz are interconnected and it is hard not to talk about it while talking about her art. After all, he is the person who recognised her talent and the first person who exhibited her artworks publically. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946 Georgia visited the place one last time to bury his ashes under a pine tree near the shore and this shows just how significant and imbued with symbolic meaning the place and the summers spent there were for the couple.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George Reflection, 1921-1922

There are different ways to look at O’Keeffe’s hollidays in the Lake George Village. Some might look at it as a tedious while others think the quiet, peaceful times spent there helped in shaping her as an artist. In was during those fleeting summer hollidays, in the quietness of the meadows, orchards, in the serene presence of the velvety blue Lake George that O’Keeffe started to be more attuned to the colours, sounds and scents of nature and this is when she first started trying out her later famous closely-cropped portraits of large flowers. In a letter to her friend Sherwood Anderson in 1923 O’Keeffe wrote: “I wish you could see the place here – there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect – but it is really lovely – And when the household is in good running order – and I feel free to work it is very nice.