Cottonwood Tree (Near Abiquiu), New Mexico (1943) by celebrated American artist Georgia O’Keeffe is exemplary of the airer, more naturalistic style that the desert inspired in her. O’Keeffe had great affinity for the distinctive beauty of the Southwest, and made her home there among the spindly trees, dramatic vistas, and bleached animal skulls that she so frequently painted. O’Keeffe took up residence at Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch twelve miles outside of the village of Abiquiú in northern New Mexico and painted this cottonwood tree around there. The softer style befitting this subject is a departure from her bold architectural landscapes and jewel-toned flowers.
The cottonwood tree is abstracted into soft patches of verdant greens through which more delineated branches are seen, spiraling in space against pockets of blue sky. The modeling of the trunk and delicate energy in the leaves carry forward past experimentations with the regional trees of the Northeast that had captivated O’Keeffe years earlier: maples, chestnuts, cedars, and poplars, among others. Two dramatic canvases from 1924, Autumn Trees, The Maple and The Chestnut Grey, are early instances of lyrical and resolute centrality, respectively. As seen in these early tree paintings, O’Keeffe exaggerated the sensibility of her subject with color and form.
In her 1974 book, O’Keeffe explained: “The meaning of a word— to me— is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Color and shapes make a more definite statement than words.” Her exacting, expressive color intrigued. The Precisionist painter Charles Demuth described how, in O’Keeffe’s work, “each color almost regains the fun it must have felt within itself on forming the first rainbow” (As quoted in C. Eldridge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 33). As well, congruities between forms knit together her oeuvre. Subjects like hills and petals undulate alike, while antlers, trees, and tributaries correspond in their branching morphology.
The sinewy contours and gradated hues characteristic of O’Keeffe find an incredible range across decades of her tree paintings. In New Mexico, O’Keeffe returned to the cottonwood motif many times, and the seasonality of this desert tree inspired many forms. The vernal thrill of new growth was channeled into spiraling compositions like Spring Tree No.1 (1945). Then, cottonwood trees turned a vivid autumnal yellow provided a breathtaking compliment to the blue backdrop of Mount Pedernal. The ossified curves of Dead Cottonweed Tree (1943) contain dramatic pools of light and dark, providing a foil to the warm, breathing quality of this painting, Cottonwood Tree (Near Abiquiu). The aural quality of this feathered cottonwood compels a feeling guided by O’Keeffe’s use of form of color.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting a similar subject at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, photograph by Ansel Adams
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953, at her desk in her Abiquiu studio with one of her smaller cottonwood paintings, photograph by Laura Gilpin
Dead Cottonwood Tree (1943) at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Autumn Trees, The Maple (1924)
The Chestnut Grey (1924)
The graph by Art Market Research shows that since 1976, paintings by O’Keeffe have increased at an 11.4% annual rate of return.
Since the Record setting sale in 2014 (Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, sold for over $44.4 million), the Georgia O’Keeffe market has seen an ever-increasing demand for signature-style oil paintings.
A small-scale 12 x 10-inch flower painting, Pink Spotted Lily (1936), sold recently in November 2021 for over $6.8 million.
In addition to her celebrated flowers, New Mexico area landscapes, nature subjects, and Lake George scenes achieve the strongest results for O’Keeffe at auction.
Top Results at Auction
Comparable Paintings Sold at Auction
- This early canvas with similar subject matter, though smaller-scale, sold for over $11.2 million in 2018, the third-highest auction price for O’Keeffe
- Nature subjects, particularly trees, were a frequent focus of O’Keeffe
- A smaller work than Cottonwood Tree (Near Abiquiu), New Mexico
- An earlier landscape from the same area in New Mexico, this piece sold for over $8.4 million in 2018
- This O’Keeffe nature subject of the same size sold in 2018 for over $8.18 million
- Earlier example from 1926
- Small-scale, abstract nature subject
- Sold recently for over $6.87 million
- This small, 12 x 10-inch painting sold for over $6.8 million in November
- A strong result for an intimately scaled piece, an indication of the demand for O’Keeffe paintings with signature subject matter
Paintings in Museum Collections
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