Horse's Skull with Pink Rose

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Horse's Skull with Pink Rose

United States, 1931
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Frame: 40 1/4 x 30 1/4 x 1 1/4 in.
Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation (AC1994.159.1)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Born in Wisconsin in 1887 and schooled in Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York, O’Keeffe went on to become one of the foremost artists of the first generation of American modernists as well as the first s...
Born in Wisconsin in 1887 and schooled in Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York, O’Keeffe went on to become one of the foremost artists of the first generation of American modernists as well as the first significant woman artist in 20th-century United States. The painting is an example of her initial response to the Southwestern desert, when O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929. She quickly became entranced with the landscape. In 1921, writing from New Mexico to the New York critic Henry McBride, O’Keeffe explained that she had been collecting little and big bones – shank bones and skulls of rams, cows, and horses – that she found scattered in the desert. “When I leave the landscape,” she wrote, “it seems I am going to work with these funny things that I now think feel so much like it.” That year she began arranging the bones with artificial flowers and painting them as “a new way of trying to define [her] feeling about that country.” The works received much critical acclaim when they were first exhibited in January 1932. Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose is a transitional painting linking O’Keeffe’s earlier flower paintings, created in New York City, and her later desert paintings. O’Keeffe’s earlier paintings, the flower paintings of the 1920s, were richly hued and erotic and created quite a stir among the critics. By 1931, however, O’Keeffe began to create softer desert flower-and-bone images that were completely different in spirit. Intending to convey the mood of the desert, O’Keeffe restricted her palette to whites, blacks, and beiges that suggested the aridness and stark drama of desert life. While the use of intense hues is still evident in Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose, O’Keeffe simplified the palette into a contrast of a few dark/light colors. The skull and flower are arranged on an abstract field of light color, thus suggesting rather than representing the desert. O’Keeffe’s fascination with bones continued throughout the decade, but later images of the skulls are juxtaposed against desert landscapes. In both early and late bone paintings the wind-bleached skulls act as modern icons of the Southwest. This painting marks the first work by O’Keeffe in the museum’s American and modern art collection and is a fine example of her Southwestern period.
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About The Era

The beginning of every century inspires a general sentiment of endless possibilities, and the twentieth century was no exception....
The beginning of every century inspires a general sentiment of endless possibilities, and the twentieth century was no exception. A modern age marked by technological wonders had begun, and the United States was to be its focal point. Lewis Mumford, one of the country’s most brilliant thinkers, explained that, unlike Europe, “the New World expanded the human imagination.” Young American students still traveled to Europe, especially Paris, for their initiation to art, but the progressive new ideas of cubism, futurism, and surrealism that they imbibed only found their true home in the United States.
As demonstrated by the first generation of modernists in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, American artists rarely abandoned referential ties to the physical world completely. The simplification of form, multiple perspectives, and ideas about the fourth dimension that radical proponents of cubism espoused would find their most compelling American expressions in the fishermen of Marsden Hartley, and the animal bones and skulls of Georgia O’Keeffe. To these artists, abstraction meant the synthesis of personal experience.
The introduction of psychological ideas, first in the form of Sigmund Freud’s discussion of the unconscious and later in the writings and art of the surrealists, found an enthusiastic audience in America. Such new concepts not only expanded ideas about the human mind but also encouraged the liberation of social conduct, in particular, sexual mores. Women increasingly became involved in creative aspects of the new modern age. In 1934 the Los Angeles artists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson issued the only surrealist manifesto to appear in the United States, thereby demonstrating that in a relatively short time California had seriously challenged New York as the leader of the brave new world.
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Label

Exhibition Label, 1997 ...
Exhibition Label, 1997 O’Keeffe was one of America’s most important early modernists. When she first visited New Mexico in the summer of 1929, the landscape of the Southwest so overwhelmed her that she felt she had found her true home. During her many solitary wanderings she collected bones – shanks and skulls of rams, cows, and horses – that she found scattered on the desert ground. Her most iconic desert paintings place a single skull against the panorama of a mountain range. In this earlier work she had not yet developed the idea of including the landscape: instead she tried to suggest the desert spareness through the use of a simple pale backdrop. In the large flower paintings that dominated her output during the 1920s O’Keeffe employed brilliant hues: intense oranges, reds, and yellows. Her use of strong blue and pink in this work allies it with the flower images. However, the striking contrast of dark and light shows that O’Keeffe was already exploring a simplified palette inspired by the elemental quality of the desert. By the mid-1930s her vision of the world was expressed in a few basic hues – whites, blacks, and beiges, colors that convey the aridness of her chosen environment. She often included a single flower with the bones, a reminder that life continues to thrive despite so much evidence of death. O’Keeffe rejected elaborate wood frames, preferring simple metal strip molding, left untouched or, as here, painted.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Kim, Woollin, Jinmyung Kim, and Songhyuk Yang, eds. Art Across America. Seoul: National Museum of Korea, 2013.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003.