Reynolda House Welcomes Georgia O’Keeffe Masterwork
Written by Allison Slaby, Curator
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills (1937) has been offered to Reynolda as a promised gift. O’Keeffe has been described by art historian Martha Severens as “patently the most important American woman artist of the twentieth century.” The painting is currently on view in The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector, an exhibition in the historic house.
The provenance of the work is exemplary. Upon completion, it was shown at An American Place, the gallery owned by O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz. It was owned in the 1930s by Eleanor Wilson. Barbara Babcock Millhouse, Reynolda’s founding director, purchased the work from Hirschl & Adler Galleries in 1977. Millhouse now offers Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills to Reynolda.
This would be the second O’Keeffe to enter the collection. In 1984, Millhouse donated O’Keeffe’s Pool in the Woods, Lake George (1922) to Reynolda House in honor of three formidable women: her aunt, Nancy Susan Reynolds; her stepmother, Winifred Babcock; and E. Carter, the housekeeper at Reynolda during the museum’s early years. Pool in the Woods is one of the works most frequently requested by other museums in the U.S. and abroad, desirable for its ineffable mystery, its shimmering serenity, and its depiction of a pivotal place and time in her life: Lake George, NY, home to the family estate of her companion and eventual husband, Alfred Stieglitz. It need not be stressed how fortunate Reynolda House is to hold in the public trust two masterworks by O’Keeffe, painted in and of two defining locations in her life: Lake George and Ghost Ranch.
In 1934, O’Keeffe began staying at Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch on the eastern edge of the Jemez mountain range of New Mexico, buying a home there in 1940. The intensely colorful geological stratification of the cliffs provided endless fascination. She said New Mexico was “a painter’s country.” At Ghost Ranch, she turned to reds, pinks, and purples to paint hills and mountains, and pinks and yellows to depict the stony cliffs visible from her house. “Out here,” she told a friend, “half your work is done for you.” Gray, pink, peach, blue, and purple bands of the cliffs near her home are reduced in her title to “lavender hills.”
This chalky palette is contrasted in the foreground by the desiccated cedar tree, which is more sharply defined, stretching to three edges of the canvas in marked counterpoint to its particolored surroundings. O’Keeffe painted the site exhaustively, often incorporating vistas toward the flint-topped Pedernal mountain. In later years, she remarked: “It belongs to me, God told me that if I painted it enough, I could have it.” Following her death in 1986, her mortal remains came to belong to the landscape, when her ashes were strewn among the rocks, pinon trees, and sagebrush of her beloved Ghost Ranch.
In 2005, Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills was featured in the national touring exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place, organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. For the exhibition, curator Barbara Buhler-Lynes commissioned photographers to locate the artist’s vantage point for twenty individual works, which were shown alongside contemporary photographs of the sites. The exhibition reestablished the artist’s ambivalent relationship with representation: she derived inspiration from the essential and unique nature of beloved spots, but she abstracted freely in her depictions of her artistic wellsprings.
About the painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, Millhouse recalled, “I purchased Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills in 1977. At that time, the dominant mode of art was gritty, urban, often political. Performance art and Photorealism were popular. You rarely if ever saw paintings in bright and cheerful colors such as those used by O’Keeffe in the 1930s. I wanted to see if a painting in those colors—so contrary to the times—could hold my interest, and I’ve lived with the painting ever since, rising each morning to its vibrancy on the wall of my bedroom.”
Millhouse met O’Keeffe following the purchase of Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills. Millhouse recalls, “Of course, it had been many decades since she created these works. As ever, she was direct, no nonsense, and amusing. When I showed her a slide of Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, she looked across the table and asked, ‘How much did you pay for that?’”