Georgia O’Keeffe and her body of work often conjure up images of long desert stretches, sun-bleached animal skulls and brightly woven textiles set against stark adobe walls of the Taos art colony. But before O’Keeffe headed West, she was a young artist in love summering on the shores of Lake George, New York. Her lesser known Lake George years are perhaps her most formative as an artist, having left a legacy of landscapes and flora abstractions we all know so well.
The year is 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe is head over heels for a man 24 years her senior and she secures an invitation from his mother to visit their Lake George family estate. Arriving at Oaklawn, the Stieglitz compound, she’s donning black slacks, her signature stubborn temperament in tow. She and Alfred pass that summer walking into the quaint little town for their mail, playing miniature golf and watching boats float across the lake from their porch. This is how they would spend the months of April until the first snow, usually in November, through 1934.
Surrounded by summer blooms, green trees at every turn, apple orchards and falling leaves, O’Keeffe created paintings inspired by nature. Her mastery of landscape and lasting sensibility of elements like light and water were honed at Lake George and are largely evident in her work from that era. Also of notable mention, her Lake George years led to her iconic large flower canvases. This is where she began to interpret them as forms and shapes in the composition, not just flowers in the middle of the piece.
On the precipice of becoming a new bride, she wrote to novelist Sherwood Anderson in 1923 “There is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees. Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces — it seems so perfect — but it is really lovely.” While Stieglitz was snapping away, his artist counterpart Georgia was churning out close to 50 canvases a year. By painting the same subject matter over and over, she was able to blur the line between representational and abstract quite expertly.
While her natural surroundings may have been vast, her living quarters were proving to be quite confining. The Hill, as the Stieglitz property was known, was comprised of 37 acres of farmland stretching farther than the artist’s eye could see. Oaklawn, however, housed Georgia, Alfred and much of the extended Stieglitz family during the seasonal months. She often felt responsible for entertaining them while performing household duties such as cleaning and gardening. Domestic obligations can most certainly hinder creativity, I try to explain this to my husband all the time!
O’Keeffe longed for solitude and a smidgen of privacy at Lake George. She would later confide in her assistant and companion Juan Hamilton during her last years in New Mexico that if she and Stieglitz had built their own home, with a proper studio for her, she would have stayed at Lake George for many more years to come. Alas, the call of an adventure beckoned Georgia and she headed to Taos in 1929.
She would return to Lake George on occasion after her move, her longest stay would be in 1934. After failing to complete a mural commission for Radio City Music Hall she suffered from what was then referred to as “psychoneurosis” . She retreated to The Hill and the loving care of the housekeeper that had worked there for 19 years. Her final trip to Lake George was in 1946 to bury some of Alfred Stieglitz’ s ashes at his beloved summer oasis. In her 90s, she would look back at her time on the lakeshore fondly, but state confidently that she would never return.
O’keeffe and Stieglitz admirers making the pilgrimage to Lake George hoping to encounter where these two art greats once lived are often disappointed. The Hill was converted into a tract housing neighborhood in the 1950s and Oaklawn has been compartmentalized into a condo time-share development wearing a shiny new veneer that masks the history of the home. There is no O’Keeffe art at any of the local museums, a situation that was temporarily ameliorated by the chief curator of the Hyde Collection in upstate New York. In 2013, an exhibition of Georgia’s work created at and inspired by Lake George opened with record attendance, making its way to San Francisco and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. While the Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George show has been dismantled, the pieces back hanging on their respective museum home walls, you can still see them scattered across the country.
The next time you find yourself in front of a genuine Georgia O’Keeffe, check the title and date, it just may be from this early stage of her creative journey. And, if you’re ever in Lake George, have a local point you in the direction of a small bed and breakfast at the foot of The Hill that boasts a view from its porch nearly identical to that of Georgia O’Keeffe’s almost 100 years ago.
Heading out of town this weekend? I have Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern in my beach tote! Just published in March, it promises a new perspective on the prolific artist. Find it here.