Published: May 1, 2001
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – Georgia O’Keeffe, who has achieved a kind of enduring iconic status among American art lovers, is usually associated with New Mexico and to some extent New York City. Often overlooked is the fact that she lived for several years in Virginia and had an interesting exhibition at Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary in 1938.
The story of that neglected show and O’Keeffe’s ties to the Old Dominion are the subject of this small, beautiful display at William and Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art. After closing here on May 27, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Williamsburg: A Re-Creation of the Artist’s First Exhibition in the South” will travel to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 23 to October 21. Sponsored by MBNA America, it is accompanied by an informative, illustrated catalogue.
The large, modern Muscarelle building, opened in 1983 and expanded in 1987, features on its exterior a long wall lined with solar tubes filled with colored water. Designed by Washington color-stripe painter Gene Davis (1920-1985), “Sun Sonata” transforms the museum’s south façade into a dramatic vision when the solar wall tubes are lit from behind at night.
In addition to the O’Keeffe show, elsewhere in the Muscarelle’s commodious galleries, visitors these days can enjoy a sampling of works from the Muscarelle’s permanent collection and a display of recent acquisitions.
The Muscarelle’s curator of collections, Ann C. Madonia, has made a real contribution to American art scholarship in mounting the current O’Keeffe exhibition and unearthing so much correspondence, photography, and memorabilia relating to its origins in 1938. A home movie, running continuously, captures a gowned, smiling O’Keeffe on the William and Mary campus to receive her honorary degree 63 years ago. “This exhibition is important to the world of art because it was previously unknown and undocumented,” says Bonnie G. Kelm, director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art and associate professor of art history at William and Mary.
In conjunction with that decision, Mrs John D. (Abby Aldrich) Rockefeller, Jr. gave the college a grand O’Keeffe floral painting, “White Flower” (1932). By this time her husband’s ambitious project to restore Eighteenth Century Williamsburg was well underway. A year later, Mrs Rockefeller donated hundreds of objects to Colonial Williamsburg that form the core of the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. (Colonial Williamsburg’s 75th anniversary and the Rockefeller Museum will be covered in a future issue of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.)
“White Flower” was added to the campus exhibition of O’Keeffe paintings that coincided with the honorary degree ceremony. The first public show of her work in the South, it consisted of eight other paintings she and Stieglitz selected, offering a survey of the artist’s work from 1927 to 1937.
Exhibited for six days were four flower canvases, one view of New York City, two landscapes of the Southwest, and a so-called bone painting. All but one of these works, plus Mrs Rockefeller’s gift, have been reassembled for the current show.
The brevity of the original exhibition’s run and its small size undoubtedly contributed to its being overlooked in the extensive scholarship about O’Keeffe. As a consequence, few of the present owners of the paintings were aware of the 1938 show. Four of the canvases are in private collections and four, including “White Flower,” are owned by museums.
Before she established her ties to Virginia, O’Keeffe had grown up on a prosperous, 600-acre farm in Sun Prairie, Wis., the second of seven children of Francis and Ida O’Keeffe. She attended public and parochial schools and took drawing lessons, which helped prompt an early decision to become an artist.
In 1903, fearful of tuberculosis that had plagued his family, Francis O’Keeffe relocated the clan to Williamsburg, which touted its temperate climate and “absence of tubercular consumption.” After the large family settled into “Wheatlands,” a large white clapboard house on the edge of town, Georgia went off to boarding school at Chatham Episcopal Institute in southern Virginia. Elizabeth Mae Willis, the principal and art teacher, recognized O’Keeffe’s gifts and encouraged her artistic ambitions.
Georgia’s plain attire and interest in becoming an artist set her apart from her southern classmates, but she made friends easily and engaged in a variety of hijinks with them. Although an indifferent student, she managed to graduate in 1905, and went on to excel in studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Throughout these years, O’Keeffe returned to spend summers with her family in Williamsburg. Advance publicity to the contrary, “Malaria, typhoid, and smallpox thrived in the hot and humid summer climate” of the southern city, curator Madonia writes in the catalogue. Indeed, in 1906 O’Keeffe contracted a severe case of typhoid fever that prevented her return to Chicago and necessitated a year of convalescence at home. Her mother died of tuberculosis ten years later.
In the meantime, the hard working, ambitious, midwestern O’Keeffes found it hard to fit in with the laid-back residents of the decaying old Virginia community. Moreover, Francis O’Keeffe’s various business ventures, including a feed-and-grain operation, real estate, and a creamery, all failed. Along the way he was forced to sell the large house and move the family into “Travis House,” an elongated, Eighteenth Century gambrel-roofed house in town. The structure, which subsequently housed superintendents of the nearby Public Hospital and served as a restaurant (1930-1951), has been handsomely restored and currently contains offices of Colonial Williamsburg.
When a cement-block construction business also faltered, the O’Keeffes had to move again, this time into a truly ugly cement-block model home the father and his sons had built. Long considered an eyesore, it was demolished in 1968.
In 1909, Mrs O’Keeffe’s illness prompted the family to move to Charlottesville. Georgia took summer art classes at the University of Virginia, which had great influence on her work, and subsequently taught there for a time.
O’Keeffe also taught art in Texas and South Carolina and studied at Columbia University Teachers College. Her art was eventually discovered by Stieglitz, who helped bring her work to public attention, starting with a solo exhibition at his famed gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in 1917. Before long, with Stieglitz’s help, O’Keeffe moved into the big-time art world.
As officials at William and Mary contemplated offering the 50-year-old painter an honorary degree, they feared that memories of her family’s hard times in Williamsburg and her well-known reticence and aversion to public honors might dissuade her from accepting. With the help of tactful intermediaries, however, O’Keeffe agreed to accept the honor. She and Stieglitz also agreed to organize the small exhibition of her work.
Responding to the formal invitation regarding the honorary degree from William and Mary President John Stewart Bryan, O’Keeffe wrote, “It will be lovely seeing the Williamsburg country again with the spring leaves… I never imagined ever going there or any other place for an honorary degree. It is quite outside my usual way of thinking so it is very much of a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise.” It was the first of 11 honorary degrees conferred on the artist.
O’Keeffe’s unusually smiling demeanor, documented in the home movie of the ceremony, suggests her pleasure with the event. Nevertheless, to the consternation of her hosts, she refused to make an acceptance speech. “O’Keeffe,” writes Madonia, “was always the strong reserved midwesterner, not inclined to small talk… If she appeared to be ‘hostile and in some other world’ [in the words of the college’s Fine Arts department chairman Leslie Cheek, Jr.] during the ceremonies, it was probably her reserved manner that was so alien to the local citizenry.”
In 1938 O’Keeffe was completing an up-and-down decade of challenges and achievements during which Stieglitz’s support and promotion had made her a major figure on the American art scene. Successful sales of her work enabled O’Keeffe to gain increasing independence from her mate and mentor.
Tiring of the pressures of New York and her strained relations with Stieglitz, starting in 1929 O’Keeffe began to spend summers in New Mexico. She continued that pattern until she moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death.
O’Keeffe’s off-again-on-again relationship with Stieglitz and bouts of ill health limited her painting output, 1927-1937, but as the works in the exhibition demonstrate, she produced some outstanding works. The wide open spaces and arid landscape of the Southwest infused her art with fresh energy and originality, as well as new subjects, which proved highly popular with critics and patrons. These qualities are readily apparent in the paintings in the show, especially those of New Mexico.
In an interesting chapter in the exhibition catalogue, Barbara Buhler Lynes pieces together clues from a rather inaccurate, handwritten list prepared by Stieglitz and other sources to pinpoint which paintings were included in the 1938 display. Lynes, author of the recently released O’Keeffe catalogue raisonné, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, also provides insights into the time, place, and subject matter of the O’Keeffe canvases.
She points out, for example, that “New York Night” (1928-29) “prominently features the Beverly Hotel, a building standing directly north of the Shelton [Hotel], with a distinctive circular window and crenellated tower.” The Shelton, where O’Keeffe and Stieglitz lived at the time, is now the New York Marriott East Side. The nocturnal canvas dramatically delineates towering Manhattan structures and streets below, punctuated by yellow lights.
The New Mexico landscapes include “Trees at Glorieta, New Mexico” (1929), a gauzy, evocative close-up of a grove of cottonwoods near the Taos Pueblo. Cottonwoods became one of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects.
“Purple Hills, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico” (1934) is one of 16 pictures the artist painted between 1934 and 1937 of the hills around her Ghost Ranch house. The spectacular colors and undulating landscape of this painting underscore why this sweeping vista was so popular with the artist.
In one of O’Keeffe’s signature bone paintings, “Deer’s Skull with Perdenal” (1936), the animal skull hanging from a dead cedar tree is silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky and the distant Perdenal Mountains. Surely no other artist has so effectively exploited the artistic potential of bones as this painter.
O’Keeffe’s close-up, vividly hued floral canvases are, as some would expect, special. Even a small image, such as “Red Poppy” (1927), which measures a mere 7 by 9 inches, is a magnified, gloriously colored image that packs a wallop.
“Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur” (1930), one of her several paintings of these flowers, juxtaposes the black and blue blooms in a harmonious and compelling manner. This monumental beauty measures a substantial 301/8 by 40 inches.
Mrs Rockefeller’s “White Flower,” painted in 1932, is another quintessential O’Keeffe floral portrait. This delicate yet strong canvas is a treasure any museum would covet.
Another flower work, “Hollyhock Pink with the Perdenal, New Mexico” (1937), features an enormous pink bloom floating over the blue-green-purple mountain form. The Perdenal was visible from O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch house.
According to Lynes, “O’Keeffe painted leaves and flowers throughout her career, and had completed at least 40 leaf and approximately 150 flower oils by early in 1938.” Only “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy” (1928) “combines leaves with a daisy,” she observes. This 30 by 40-inch oil, a marvelously compelling symphony in yellow with white touches, is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. Too fragile to travel, it is represented at the show by a large-scale photograph that appears to do justice to its brilliant color and crisp configuration.
The 56-page exhibition catalogue, with informative essays by Kelm, Lynes, and Madonia, a useful chronology, and a bibliography, is very well done. Reproductions of all works in the exhibition and others that relate to them, plus vintage photographs and documents relating to the 1938 show, add valuable insights. Published by the museum, it will be treasured by O’Keeffe fans.
The Muscarelle Museum’s own collection, which can be traced to 1732, contains over 3,000 works of art from all over the world. On view during a recent visit there were impressive portraits by Rembrandt Peale and Sir Godfrey Kneller; a small but nice “Village Scene” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; a tiny gem of a still life by John F. Peto; a grand European landscape by Daniel Ridgway Knight; a Frederick Waugh seascape; and a Guy Wiggins snowscape.
Of particular note was an enormous, typically dramatic depiction by American expatriate painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) of “The Battle of Dunkirk” (circa 1814). Other standouts included a gorgeously hued “Autumn Landscape” (1875) by Hudson River School painter Jasper F. Cropsey (1823-1900) and a moody, nocturnal scene, “Moonlit Landscape” (circa 1903-10), by African-American artist Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937), who spent most of his career in France.
Among the Muscarelle’s recent acquisitions are fine etchings and works on paper by Mary Cassatt, Arthur Wesley Dow, William Hogarth, and James Tissot. The highlight is a large and wonderfully colored lithograph by Faith Ringgold (born 1930), “Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles.” It depicts African-American heroes such as Madam C.J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Mae Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Mary McLeod Bethune arrayed behind a large quilt, with Vincent van Gogh standing somewhat quizzically to the side, holding a bowl of flowers.
This visit suggests that for art lovers, no sojourn in Colonial Williamsburg would be complete without a stop at this fine museum, which is adjacent to the old town.
The Muscarelle Museum of Art is on Jamestown Road on the campus of the College of William and Mary. For information, 757-221-2700.
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