Georgia O’Keeffe might not be a household name in everyone’s household, but chances are high that anyone who has looked at art at any time in their life has seen an example of this artist’s unique style. Blending elements of the abstract with elements of the representational, O’Keeffe is perhaps most known for her giant flower paintings, produced during the 1920s. Analyzing one of her paintings, such as “Oriental Poppies” (1928), reveals the artist’s response to her subject through texture and color.
The 20”x 24” oil on canvas painting depicts two brilliantly red Oriental poppies, a specific type of flower, with their black star-spoked centers to either side of the vertical and horizontal center. These two flowers are depicted so that one seems to face the viewer. The other flower seems to be crowding in on the right due to the compression of petals seen on the first flower. This gives the impression that the other flower has a desire of its own to turn its face to the viewer.
However, it remains the first flower that is fully visible to the viewer’s eye. There is nothing else in view on the canvas. These two flowers completely fill the canvas space, with some petals ‘falling off the edge of the canvas. To help build the texture of the flowers, O’Keeffe preserved the round outlines of the flower by washing the background of the painting, visible mostly in the four corners of the paints, with a darker red hue. This begins to illustrate how texture and color are used as a means of expressing the artist’s impression.
In many ways, the painting is highly realistic in that it presents a very detailed look at the flowers. There is a great deal of shading provided to give the flowers a rich texture. Delicate curves are evident in the scalloped edges of the multi-layered petals and there seems to be a dusty dryness in the wells of black stripes. A puffball-type texture emerges in the shadings of the center blackness and a small, slightly green starburst appears as the soft heart of the flower itself.
The introduction of oranges and yellows within the outer petals emphasizes the sense of fragility as one gets the sense that the light is shining through them rather than reflecting off of them. Only a few hints of refracted light are provided in the nearly white touches on the outer edges of the flowers. Through this textural approach, O’Keeffe causes us to focus on the almost insubstantial nature of the flower itself and, whether, by artist’s intention or not, the connection is often made to the fragile nature of life itself.
However, O’Keeffe doesn’t allow us to wallow in despair regarding the shortness of this flower’s beauty as she reminds us through her use of color of its ability to create an impact. The robust reds and oranges of the painting fill the eye and pop out of the canvas, demanding the viewer’s attention and retaining it with passion and force. The black centers keep the flowers anchored within their frame and provide the viewer with a stable place on which to focus while they are assaulted and consumed with the energy and spirit of the blossoms.
The small starburst in the center of the first flower serves almost as a hypnotist’s focus, attracting the eye and celebrating a moment of quietly astonishing beauty that can be had for the trouble of noticing the small flower at one’s feet.
Through form and color, O’Keeffe manages to convey the sense she experiences when she allows herself to notice two small flowers. By magnifying the flowers to their tremendous size, she is able to force many others to notice the beauty that can be contained within the palm of one hand. Through texture, she is able to convey the sense of softness, the beauty of nature, and the delicate balance of life. This somewhat melancholy concept is outweighed into an affirmation of life through the vibrant colors and solid anchors provided in the details of the petals and the blackness of the centers. For O’Keeffe, this was the goal, to get people to stop and notice the beauty all around them.
O’Keeffe, Georgia. “Oriental Poppies.” (1928). Oil on canvas.