Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
Inside Red Canna
Signed verso, “Georgia O’Keeffe 1919”
oil on canvas
22 x 17 in.
Inside Red Canna is a particularly significant work as it is one of O’Keeffe’s earliest known flower paintings. Completed in 1919, this was the year her benefactor and lover, Alfred Stieglitz, sponsored O’Keeffe so she could paint unimpeded, making this an especially productive year.
Inside Red Canna embraces the spirit of the American Modernist movement with such authority that it must be considered among its most emblematic projections at a time when the movement was still becoming self-aware.
Of the 147 flower paintings O’Keeffe created, 48 are in permanent museum collections. Approximately 100 are in private collections—at the time of the Georgia O’Keeffe Catalogue Raisonné printing in 1999.
Georgia O’Keeffe began her career the summer of 1915 as a self-possessed artist creating pure abstractions. She devoted herself to working in charcoal solely as if to eliminate every extraneous element that might distract her from her quest to create emotional forms beyond the grasp of reason. She eschewed color, drew as if she were creating a vocabulary of sensory impressions, and expressed her thoughts and feelings as a vivid report of her desires and bodily experiences as a woman. Arthur Dove, a highly sensitive artist himself, came closest to her far-flung imaginings, but no artist of that time matched her freedom from representational constraints.
Inside Red Canna, painted in 1919, is a particularly significant work. It may be the earliest depiction of a flower painted in oil and magnified so that its features fill the available surface of the canvas to its margins. Created during a fecund period when benefactor and current lover Alfred Stieglitz sponsored her for a year so she could paint unimpeded, it utilizes elements of those non-objective charcoal drawings as much as it departs from them. With its descending void and rich, rapturous palette that boldly reflects her sexuality, the metaphorical reportage is pure O’Keeffe. Yet the stylized, jagged precisionism of Inside Red Canna also suggests inspiration gained from other artists of Stieglitz’s circle. From our perspective, it is a painting that embraces the spirit of the American Modernist movement with such authority it must be considered among its most emblematic projections at a time when the movement was still becoming self-aware. She learned contemporary photography techniques — close cropping from Paul Strand, for example— and adopted a handling that accentuated the crisp, sharp delineations of the au courante aesthetic that had supplanted the soft focused pictorialism of Edward Steichen, Karl Struss, and even Alfred Stieglitz himself. As if to accentuate a sense of monumentality, the forms are fully modeled, richly colored, and the picture immutably symmetrical. Draw a line vertically through its middle and the right and left sides mirror each other. Yet, on closer inspection, neither exactly reproduces the other. But it has the kind of symmetry that lends itself to an opposing orientation, a painting that ‘reads’ quite well upside down, if without the intended metaphor.
Inside Red Canna shares an attention to augmented propositions with her more mature works, yet it exists as a sort of compacted version of the voluminous expansion her later paintings would capture in their billowing, cloud-like plumes, soft folds and curvaceous shapes. To a large extent, interpretations of a painting such as Inside Red Canna were much derived from the nudes and scantily clad pictures Stieglitz took of O’Keeffe and not just because these photographs were often cropped for dramatic effect. By the time the painting was unveiled for the watershed 1923 solo exhibition at Anderson Galleries, Stieglitz’s sensuous photographs shared walls with O’Keeffe’s pictures with unrelenting consistency. He may have been of immeasurable help in O’Keeffe’s career, but his tack invited crude and lurid interpretations when instead, she had intended to express highly personal feelings without undue fanfare and ideally sub rosa. But imagine how a painting such as Inside Red Canna might be received at a time when a woman’s social freedom was as limited as her voice was muted and surely, Inside Red Canna is among the earliest paintings that illustrate O’Keeffe’s revelation that, “I found that I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way — things I had no words for.”
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, 1929
Georgia O’Keeffe, c. 1919. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
Catalog and Video
The definitive authority on the authenticity of paintings by Van Gogh, the Van Gogh Museum inspected this painting in January 2020 and provided this letter of authenticity. During that inspection, X-ray revealed a second painting under the surface – a portrait of a man.