Painting 1 Research: Georgia O’Keeffe

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East River From the Shelton 1927/28 Oil on canvas 63.7 x 55.8 cm

New Jersey State Museum: Gift of Mary Lea Johnson C 1994 The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986 American

O’Keeffe was born at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  In 1919 she gave up teaching and devoted herself to her painting and had her first show at the Anderson Gallery in New York in 1923.  Gradually her reputation as one of the great pioneers of American painting in the 20th century was established.  She is mainly known for her detailed and enlarged flower forms.  These rich and softly curling petals become almost abstract in their form and appear to generate a sensuous power.  Certainly the simplest of forms under O’Keeffe’s penetrating gaze created paintings full of mood and emotional intensity.  She never became a truly abstract painter however.  Her work was always anchored in the appearances of both natural and made objects and places.  When challenged that her work was concerned with the formal, abstract elements of colour, form and tone, she vehemently denied it, stating that her work was very “realistic”.  Her “real” flowers, though, often appeared to be landscapes and her landscapes like the East River view, seem to almost change into exotic blooms.

The Picture

There are four distinct parts to O’Keeffe’s painting of the “East River from the Shelton”: the sky, the distant factories, the river, and the silhouettes.  She seems to have collected these separate ideas and scenes together and collaged them into one expressive vision. She has observed this scene at different times of day and decided to produce a painting that captures the feeling of the place and the way light and smoke blend int he bleak industrial landscape.  She does not comment overtly on the pollution: this was 1927 when pollution was of little concern to the factory owners.  In spite of that it i a deeply disturbing image of air pollution, ahead of its time.  Even the sun is blocked out as the river runs red.  It could be an illustration to “The Iron Woman” by Ted Hughes!  O’Keeffe finds a visual interest in the factory and chimneys silhouettes and copies the effect you get on a camera lens when shooting into the sun.

Issues – this could e said to be a painting air pollution and the damaging effect smoke has on sunlight.  This is a vision of an eclipsed and damaged world that only now, 70 years after this painting we are trying to clean up.

Silhouettes – result from the peculiar effect of strong light behind an object.  The object seems to dissolve into outline.  This has been used for shadow theatre, portraiture and for many exciting and dramatic effects in film.  O’Keeffe has used silhouettes and explored the pattern and shape of the factories created by strong back lighting.  Will look at the Joseph Wright painting and at Cone’s Plaza for silhouettes with umbrellas.

Starting points – printmaking scrap-wood, tubes, sponges, crunched up paper and rollers.  Print the sky and river first with sponges and rollers before putting on the factories and smoke.  Look at shadow theatre / creating shadow work even percussion sound and music…..


Arthur Penn: Art Pack, Philip Green Educational Limited