Women Artists

Beyond Flowers and Deserts: Georgia O’Keeffe’s New York

Piotr Policht 4 January 2024 min Read

She is definitely best known for her subtle, sometimes almost abstract depictions of flowers and New Mexico landscapes. But there’s also another great chapter in Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic career that happens to be overseen sometimes – the New York period.

O’Keeffe spent most of her life in a quiet ranch in the New Mexican desert, but for a couple of years, she lived in quite an opposite neighborhood, in the very middle of the vivid, growing metropolis of New York. She came invited by Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, gallery owner, spiritus movens of New York’s avant-garde scene, and soon-to-be O’Keeffe’s husband. Before she decided New York wasn’t exactly her cup of tea, she painted several magnificent cityscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, Night, 1929 © 2014 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society.
Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, Night, 1929 © 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society.

She came to New York in an era of growing skyscrapers and they became her main subject in cityscapes. Almost all of them stick to elongated, vertical proportions highlighting the buildings’ monumental scale.

georgia o'keeffe new york
On the left: Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building – Night, New York, 1927. On the right: The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926 © 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society

Some paintings show skyscrapers’ splendor, especially in the night, when they become richly illuminated, almost immaterial towers of light. But the artist also captured Shelton Hotel, in which she herself lived, in a bright daylight, sun glaring from behind its facade. It’s also interesting how she transforms photographic effect, lens flare, into painting in the form of yellow and orange dots.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Manhattan, 1932, Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation
Georgia O’Keeffe, Manhattan, 1932, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

O’Keeffe was a part of an American movement called Precisionism and although she painted some abstractions she mainly stuck to depicting reality, but in synthesized, sometimes very decorative form.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel, 1923, New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT, USA.
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Georgia O’Keeffe, East River No. 1, 1927 / Artists Rights Society

But New York is not and definitely wasn’t in those days either, just Manhattan’s skyline. O’Keeffe not only painted the hotel in which she lived itself, but also the view from its window, dominated by factory chimneys.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, City Night, 1926, Photo: Bridgeman Images/ © 2016 Georgie O’Keeffe Museum/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite all the fascination she had for the city, her main interest was not man-made structures, but nature. Even while in New York, she searched for the little patches of sky and clouds high above, between the tops of the skyscrapers. She started traveling to New Mexico. Finally, she decided to live there permanently. Maybe this decision was easier to make regarding the reception of her cityscapes. In the man-dominated environment, her fellow artists were advising her to stick to the flowers, rather that to paint skyscrapers, which they thought were… a men’s theme.

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