In her youth, Georgia O’Keeffe had been particularly fascinated by the jack-in-the-pulpit. In 1930, she executed a series of six paintings of the common North American herbaceous flowering plant at Lake George in New York. The National Gallery of Art is home to five of these six works:
The large, magnified representations of flowers that O’Keeffe embarked upon in the 1920s became her most famous subjects. Although such images had antecedents in the photographs of
This work is part of a series of six paintings depicting the jack-in-the-pulpit flower, five of which reside at the National Gallery of Art:
The jack-in-the-pulpit is a common North American herbaceous flowering plant of the Arum family, Arisaema triphyllum (also called A. atrorubens), whose upright spadix, or jack, is enclosed within an elongated, striped spathe. It is closely related to the calla lily, another of O’Keeffe’s early floral subjects. A favorite among wildflower enthusiasts, the plant’s colloquial name is derived from the resemblance between its spathe arching over its spadix and early hooded church pulpits. It is also known as “Indian turnip” because Native Americans cooked and ate its bulbous roots, which they considered a delicacy. Joseph Harned, a botanist, noted that the “jack-in-the-pulpit has been a delight to American boys and girls ever since Columbus discovered America.”
Joseph E. Harned, Wild Flowers of the Alleghenies (Oakland, MD, 1931), 94.
O’Keeffe has related how her high school art teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, first introduced her to the subject:
Holding a jack-in-the-pulpit high, she pointed out the strange shapes and variations in color—from the deep, almost black earthy violet through all the greens, from the pale whitish green in the flower through the heavy green of the leaves. She held up the purplish hood and showed us the jack inside. I had seen jacks before, but this was the first time I remember examining a flower. I was a little annoyed at being interested because I didn’t like the teacher.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York, 1976), n. p.
The artist has also described the circumstances that led her to execute the six-painting series at Lake George:
In the woods near two large spring houses, wild jack-in-the-pulpits grew—both the large dark ones and the small green ones. The year I painted them I had gone to the lake early in March. Remembering the art lessons of my high school days, I looked at the jacks with great interest. I did a set of six paintings of them. The first painting was very realistic. The last one had only the jack from the flower.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York, 1976), unpaginated text accompanying pl. 41.
Although the sequential numbering of the works’ titles implies a serial progression of exploration and refinement that culminated in the sixth version, the actual order of execution is not clear. O’Keeffe and Doris Bry renumbered the series in 1970; the present third painting was originally the second, and the fourth was originally the sixth. Further complicating matters, there is no consistent use of Roman and Arabic numbers in the paintings’ titles and the works vary in size.
The first three paintings in O’Keeffe and Bry’s final arrangement are all relatively naturalistic views of a single flower’s exterior. The forms are simplified, and the artist made no attempt to render minute botanical details. The bold colors are derived from the jack-in-the-pulpit’s distinctive purple-striped spathe (a feature that botanists have identified as characteristic of the fertile plants), and emphasis is placed on the tip of the spadix that protrudes from the protective spathe. Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 1
The last three paintings in the series are close-up, lateral views of the spathe’s interior. In these works, the imagery borders on abstraction.
Margaret Breuning, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” New York Evening Post, Jan. 24, 1931.
Neltje Blanchan, Nature’s Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of Our Wild Flowers and Their Insect Friends (New York, 1904), 367.
Edward Alden Jewell, “Georgia O’Keeffe in an Art Review,” New York Times (Feb. 2, 1934). For the record, William Schack, “On Abstract Painting,” Magazine of Art 27 (Sept. 1934): 470–475, reproduced and titled the painting “Number 8.”
The large magnified representations of flowers that O’Keeffe began to paint in 1923 are her most famous subjects, and the ones with which she is most often associated; as early as 1929 Miguel Covarrubias caricatured her in the New Yorker as “Our Lady of the Lily”
New Yorker, July 6, 1929.
For a discussion of some of some of these artists and their images of calla lilies, see Charles C. Eldredge, “Calla Moderna: ‘Such a Strange Flower,’” in Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940 (Santa Fe, NM, 2002), 18–29.
Lewis Mumford, “O’Keefe [sic] and Matisse,” New Republic 50 (March 2, 1927), reprinted in O’Keeffe Exhibition (New York, 1928), and Barbara Buhler Lynes, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916–1929 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1989), 265.
Some early critics, whose outlook was conditioned by the misogynistic symbolist equation between flowers and predatory female sensuality, found O’Keeffe’s paintings enticing, sensual, and lewd.
For a summary of these cultural influences, see Bram Dijkstra, “America and Georgia O’Keeffe,” in Georgia O’Keeffe: The New York Years, ed. Doris Bry and Nicholas Callaway (New York, 1991), 125–126.
Neltje Blanchan, Nature’s Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of Our Wild Flowers and Their Insect Friends (New York, 1904), 368.
Neltje Blanchan, Nature’s Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of Our Wild Flowers and Their Insect Friends (New York, 1904), 368.
Various early critical responses to O’Keeffe’s floral imagery are discussed in Barbara Buhler Lynes, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916–1929 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1989). Feminist, gender-based art historical literature has added another perspective to these issues. See, for example, Anna C. Chave, “O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze,” Art in America 78 (Jan. 1990): 114-125, 177, 179.
For some early viewers, the jack-in-the-pulpit series was distinguished by its phallic imagery. As early as December 1930, Arthur Dove wrote to Stieglitz about
Quoted in Anne Middleton Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley, CA, 1996), 70.
Sue Davidson Lowe, Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography (New York, 1983), 310.
Anne Middleton Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley, CA, 1996), 71.
Henry McBride, “The Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition,” New York Sun, Jan. 24, 1931.
O’Keeffe repeatedly denied that she had intended her flowers to have any overt or covert sexual content. She offered an alternative—and more practical—explanation of how she came to paint her “blown-up flowers”:
In the twenties, huge buildings seemed to be going up overnight in New York. At that time I saw a painting by Fantin-Latour, a still life of flowers I found very beautiful, but I realized were I to paint the flowers so small, no one would look at them because I was unknown. So I thought I’ll make them look big like the huge buildings going up. People will be startled; they’ll have to look at them—and they did.
Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York, 1962), 190–191; quoted in Henry Geldzahler, American Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1965), 131–132.
On another occasion she offered a similar account of what led her to paint flowers, and directly refuted the critics: “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”
Georgia O’Keeffe, “About Myself,” in Georgia O’Keeffe: Exhibition of Oils and Pastels (New York, 1939), n. p. The text is reproduced in Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York, 1976), n. p.
The imagery in O’Keeffe’s floral subjects is indeed suggestive, and in the 1920s and 1930s—the era of Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, and Sherwood Anderson, and the height of the women’s suffrage movement—they were likely to be interpreted as such. From the perspective of plant symbolism, the jack-in-the-pulpit, and other of O’Keeffe’s floral subjects, had strong sexual connotations; one early 20th-century writer even commented: “Female botanizing classes pounce upon it as they would upon a pious young clergyman.”
Neltje Blanchan, Nature’s Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of Our Wild Flowers and Their Insect Friends (New York, 1904), 367. For a discussion of flower symbolism in O’Keeffe’s paintings, see Charles C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York, 1991), 82–90.
Charles C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York, 1991), 90.
September 29, 2016
across top reverse: Jack in the Pulpit Abstraction - 1930 / No.5 / signed within five-pointed star: OK
The artist [1887-1986]; her estate; bequest 1987 to NGA.
- Georgia O'Keeffe, An American Place, New York, 1931, one of nos. 7-11.
- Possibly Exhibition of The American Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1932, no. 105, as Jack-in-the-Pulpit.
- Georgia O'Keeffe at 'An American Place', 44 Selected Paintings 1915-1927, An American Place, New York, 1934 (checklist lost).
- Georgia O'Keeffe: Exhibition of Paintings (1919-1934), An American Place, New York, 1935, not on checklist.
- Georgia O'Keeffe, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1943, no. 40.
- Possibly An Exhibition of Paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; The Mayo Hill Galleries, Delray Beach, Florida, 1953, no. 13, as Jack in the Pulpit.
- Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Art, 1970-1971, no. 69, repro.
- Reflections of Nature: Flowers in American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1984, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 59.
- Georgia O'Keeffe: 1887-1986, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Art Institute of Chicago; Dallas Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1987-1989, no. 81, repro.
- Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; Dallas Museum of Art; Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1999-2000, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 43 (shown only in Washington and Santa Fe).
- O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 2001-2002, not in catalogue (shown only in Humlebaek).
- Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, 2009-2010, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 121.
- Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George, The Hyde Collection Art Museum, Glens Falls; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, 2013-2014, no. 54, repro.
- O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach; Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, 2016, no. 62, fig. 11.
- O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York, 1976: color pl. 41.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 176, no. 65, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 251, repro.
- Wagner, Anne Middleton. Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe. Berkeley, 1996: 70-72, color pl. 12.
- Lynes, Barbara Buhler. Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1999: 1:436, no. 719, color repro.
- Marshall, Richard D. Georgia O'Keeffe: Nature and Abstraction. Exh. cat. Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Vancouver Art Gallery. Milan and New York, 2007: no. 45, 120-121, color repro.
- Roberts, Ellen E. O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York. Exh. cat. Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach; Portland (Maine) Museum of Art. West Palm Beach, 2016: 126 fig. 11, 127-128, 150 no. 62.