When we visited Santa Fe, N.M., at the end of September, the first place we went to was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It was a major disappointment because most of the museum was closed and all that was available were about a dozen paintings in two small rooms.
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On Feb. 13 I happened to be sitting right behind the O’Keeffe Museum’s director, Robert A. Kret, where I was at a press preview for the Georgia O’Keeffe show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. He explained his dilemma was that the museum was only 5,000 square feet, so it had to close down most of the museum to mount a new show.
The show is called “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George.” It originated at the historical Hyde House where the Hyde Collection is based in Glen Falls, N.Y. Glen Falls, on the Hudson River, is 21 miles from the village of Lake George. It then traveled to Santa Fe, opening Oct. 4, about a week after we visited the O’Keeffe Museum, and ran through Jan. 26. San Francisco is its final stop, where it will run through May 11.
Some of the works are recognizable, but many among the 54 works on display will be new even to O’Keeffe fans. Included among those are several paintings of Lake George that were last exhibited in 1923. Chief among this group is “Starlight Night, Lake George,” that had been held by the niece of Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s lover, then husband. Show curator Erin B. Coe, from the Hyde Museum, said this painting has been sold to a private collector with the proviso that it be loaned for this show.
It is an unexpected and a Van Gogh-like bonus. This will be the only chance to see this painting, which illustrates the variety of scenes from which she drew inspiration for the 200 paintings she did during her summers at Lake George from 1918 to 1934.
O’Keeffe spent summers on the Stieglitz family’s 36-acre farm on Lake George. She hiked through the hills and rowed on the lake, even painting her knees and the scenery as seen from her rowboat.
“I had to create an equivalent for what I was looking at — not copy it,” said O’Keeffe.
Partly how she accomplished that, Coe pointed out in a photograph of O’Keeffe painting flowers by her “shanty” studio on the Stieglitz property, was to set her watercolor sketch pad by her side rather than in front of her.
“I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what everyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so dear to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught — to accept as true my own thinking,” O’Keeffe said.
Coe said O’Keeffe had a “strong attachment to place.”
Lake George is 2 miles wide and 30 miles long, with 172 islands and 200 feet deep. It is the scene of the French and Indian Wars featured in James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.” It empties into Lake Champlain where Benedict Arnold built a fleet of ships in 1776 that fought a British fleet. Arnold’s navy was destroyed but it prevented the British using the lakes to invade New York from the north. Another naval battle there in the War of 1812 again kept the British from invading from the north. Lake George now includes a “Millionaire’s Row” of summer mansions.
O’Keeffe’s Lake George work is overlooked, but she spent 16 summers, from March through September or November, there, taking her work back to New York to finish the paintings in her studio during the winter. It was at Lake George where she developed and honed her abstraction of nature. She and Stieglitz and his wide variety of guests — poets, artists, critics, writers, photographers — created an intellectual and artistic exchange of ideas that were part of what helped shape O’Keeffe’s art and philosophy.
A farmer’s daughter, O’Keeffe not only painted the scenery and details of Lake George, but she painted the fruits of the farm’s harvest and planted corn and petunias, which she painted.