Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist who loved “things”—who explored them, magnified them, and captured their essence in her paintings. For her, things had a resonance both universal and personal. Her 1931 painting Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses
at the Art Institute of Chicago provides rich food for thought on the ways things convey meaning in painting.
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses
(Figure 1) is one of a number of paintings from the 1930s in which O’Keeffe incorporated bones and other objects she found during her summer sojourns in New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s first extended visit to New Mexico was in the summer of 1929, when she stayed in Taos with her friend, Mabel Dodge Luhan. Thereafter, she spent part of every summer in New Mexico, eventually renting a cottage at Ghost Ranch north of Santa Fe and ultimately buying a home and studio in the town of Abiquiu, where she settled permanently in 1949. While Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses has the Southwestern elements so strongly associated with O’Keeffe, it was painted in Lake George, New York, in the small studio she and Alfred Stieglitz had set up on the Stieglitz family property. In a letter to Stieglitz dated July 10, 1931, O’Keeffe told him of packages to arrive from New Mexico.
One barrel contained some of her “trash,” including skulls, bones, and cloth flowers. These objects, which she took the trouble to ship across the country, clearly had special meaning for O’Keeffe, both for their formal visual qualities and as reminders of a place she had come to love. She included them in paintings that fall and in the following years.
[O'Keeffe's] affection is not just for the physical objects, but for their inner life, that “something more” which is invisible and yet exists in everything.
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses
presents a fascinating composition in which the starkness of the skull is offset by what surrounds it. The skull, centrally placed and painted with graphic realism, dominates the painting. Its jagged silhouette forms a strong V-shape and its horns extend horizontally almost to the edges of the canvas. Our eyes are drawn to the bright white of the rounded brow and then to the sharp edges of the nasal cavity just below. In Stieglitz’s famous photograph of O’Keeffe holding the cow’s skull, we can see the uneven, sharp edges of the bottom tip of the skull. But in the painting, O’Keeffe covers this area with one of two calico roses, creating a surreal, almost comical effect.
The calico roses were among the objects O’Keeffe shipped from New Mexico and she included them in multiple paintings. Her love of flowers is well-known, but these cloth roses have their own unique visual qualities, which in Cow’s Skull O’Keeffe uses to great effect. The flowers overlap the skull, softening its outlines and creating a visual foil. They are rounded and delicate, while the skull is hard and jagged. The petals are translucent and appear mobile, while the skull is opaque and still. The cool gray tones of the flowers, especially the upper one, contrast with the bright white and hints of yellow in the skull. With the flowers, O’Keeffe also creates a play between the symmetry of the skull and the asymmetry of the placement of the upper rose and the form of the lower one, with its leaves and stem extending to the right.
The use of asymmetry and contrasting hues of white is continued in the background of the painting. Overlapping vertical panels of white material fill the background, separated by an irregular black stripe that runs from the top to the bottom of the canvas. In color, they provide another shade of white, mixed with gray and subtle brown undertones that add warmth. The black stripe is off-center, echoing the asymmetry of the roses. The material of the white panels is uncertain. Are they paper or textile? With their undulating edges and pockets of shadow they appear to be cloth of some sort, whether soft or stiff. Perhaps they are the Native American blanket with a black border she brought back from New Mexico?
The background plays a strong role, adding complexity and mystery to the painting. This is especially clear when we compare this work to O’Keeffe’s Horse’s Skull with White Rose, also from 1931 (Figure 2). In that painting, the horse’s skull and the same double-stemmed calico rose are placed against a completely black background. The overall effect is stark and uncompromising, quite different from the nuance of Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses. In other skull and bone paintings from this period, O’Keeffe used a similar black stripe in the background. In Thigh Bone on Black Stripe from 1931, the thigh bone is set against a wide black stripe flanked by narrow strips of tan. There is a similar play here between the realistically rendered bone and the abstract background. O’Keeffe calls attention to this by adding shadows where the thigh bone appears to press against the tan strip of the background.
Cow’s Skull, Red, White, and Blue
(Figure 3) is closer to the Art Institute painting and was executed around the same time. In this America-themed version of the cow’s skull composition, the black stripe is placed between strips of blue and red and is visible through the openings in the skull.
The cyan blue panels have diagonal shadows, suggesting cloth, but the skull casts no shadows and is sharply outlined against the background.
These comparisons shed light on what O’Keeffe accomplishes in Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses. She places the realistically rendered objects against an enigmatic, largely abstract background. The shadows, which add contour and volume to the foreground objects, blend seamlessly into the background, matching the tones of the white panels. The overall effect is one of harmony, in which the various oppositions in the painting are resolved.
The Genre of Cow’s Skull
One way to ascertain O’Keeffe’s relationship to things is to ask to what genre of painting does Cow’s Skull belong. In its grouping of disparate objects depicted in a realistic style, it has elements of still life, especially the skull, which recalls the skulls in vanitas paintings with their memento mori theme. The Art Institute label forefronts this aspect of the painting. Not only does the skull evoke mortality, but the calico roses, which were used to decorate graves, have a funereal connotation
But O’Keeffe’s painting is markedly different in structure and meaning from the traditional still life. Her objects are not grouped on a table in a realistic, if artful, manner; rather they float in space in a way that can only be imaginary. Rather than resting on a tablecloth, they “rest” on an ephemeral background, which contributes to the unreal aspects of the image. O’Keeffe’s things are pushed forward in the picture plane and confront the viewer, eliminating the sense of perspective typical of still life.
The tone of Cow’s Skull also departs significantly from that of still life, particularly if we compare it to 17th-century Dutch paintings. Whether or not there are overt references to death, such as the human skull or snuffed candles, Dutch still life typically retains moral overtones regarding the vanity of all earthly things.
This tone is completely absent in O’Keeffe’s painting. The skull and roses are abstracted from any narrative or symbolic context. It is not that they are without meaning, but they are presented simply as things, asking us to look at them anew.
O’Keeffe’s own words about the skulls and bones she collected are illuminating. She described picking up the bones, just as she picked up other objects in her desert wanderings:
I have picked flowers where I found them—have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked […] When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too […] I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.
This goes with her description in her letters to Stieglitz of the things she was sending back east as “trash,” not to convey lack of value (since they were clearly very valuable to her), but rather their status as found objects. In one of her most familiar quotes, she says of the bones:
The skulls were there and I could say something with them. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than the animals walking around—hair, eyes and all, with the tails switching. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable—and knows no kindness with all its beauty.
In Cow’s Skull, O’Keeffe conveys this sense of beauty and life, which cuts against the connotations of death. She creates her own kind of still life painting, presenting things in her unique way.
The Mystery of Things
O’Keeffe’s letters to Stieglitz reveal another aspect of her skull paintings, which is the humorous or playful.
Her letters from the fall of 1931 repeatedly use the phrase “a funny painting” to describe the skull pictures. She tells Stieglitz how they amuse her or make her laugh. “The horse’s head with a pink rose over its eye makes me laugh every time I look at it.” What made her laugh was the odd juxtaposition of objects, painted realistically but placed on the canvas in an absurd manner. Her letters make clear that this playfulness is not incompatible with either beauty or seriousness, and at times she uses the word “funny” to mean bizarre or perplexing. The way her objects float in space, without a narrative context, contributes to the “funny” aspect of the paintings. These characteristics invite a comparison with Surrealism, especially the paintings of René Magritte. O’Keeffe’s debt to Surrealism is unmistakable in some of her later works, such as Ladder to the Moon
(1958), but Cow’s Skull already shows the influence of that artistic movement. American artists were increasingly aware of Surrealism in the 1930s, leading up to the influential Dada and Surrealism exhibition at MOMA in 1936.
Magritte’s strange juxtapositions and floating objects give his works a similar sense of absurdity and mystery. In the same year as O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull, he painted The Voice of Space in which huge jingle bells float in the sky above a realistic landscape. O’Keeffe’s bone paintings, in which the blue sky shows through a circular pelvic bone, strongly recall Magritte’s 1928/29 painting The False Mirror, which depicts a large eye with a cloudy sky replacing the iris. Magritte famously said he wished to “make the ordinary strange,” to call attention to the mysterious aspect of things. “We are surrounded by curtains. We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.” Cow’s Skull
resembles Magritte’s paintings, in which strange juxtapositions of things invite contemplation. Both artists are fascinated by things and both place them in unusual contexts to call attention to them as things. Magritte’s paintings are more cerebral than O’Keeffe’s—hers more personal and affective—but both explore the element of mystery that underlies the visible world.
The Interior of Things
While writing this article I had the good fortune to see the wonderful Cezanne exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (May 15–September 5, 2022). Cézanne is a pre-eminent master in depicting things, and as I looked, I carried O’Keeffe and Cow’s Skull with me. One section of the exhibition was devoted to Cézanne’s paintings of human skulls, a subject which increasingly occupied him in the last decade of his life. His skull paintings included oils and watercolors, which are quite distinct in style and tone. The oils are evocative of the tradition of vanitas still life painting, with their subdued tones, the skulls grouped on a table, and the occasional inclusion of other objects. The watercolors, in contrast, have a markedly different effect. In The Three Skulls (Trois Crânes) from 1902/06 (Figure 4), Cézanne groups the skulls on a brightly patterned carpet bunched on a table.
The overlapping skulls stand out in their stark whiteness, illuminated by light from the left. But Cézanne gives equal play to the bright carpet, the contours and colors of which seem to merge with the skulls. In an accompanying poem contemporary artist Julia Fish reacts to the painting, conveying this interplay:
Each absent place an eye should be drinks-in the spectrum of its circumstance:
thin’d red with blue marks one against a yellow’d pool
the other five make what they will from annotated variants: sparks or faded notes of green gray’d-blues indigos with cobalt-bits water’d sepias blotched-pinks from red ochre’d mauves and violets.
Each absent nose inhales an ever-shaded-palette-scent.
Each brush-marked gap proposes “inside-ness”— invokes a dome we cannot see: where thought and recollection once prevailed.
Fish beautifully captures the symbiosis between the skulls and the textile, between form and color. The tints that fill the cavities of the skull call to mind what used to be present, the “thought and recollection” contained within the skull. Cézanne, like O’Keeffe, found skulls beautiful and his watercolors suggest that their beauty resides not just in their physical form but in their “inside-ness” and all it evokes.
Returning to O’Keeffe’s painting, it’s clear that the interior of the skull was of great interest to her too. She accentuates the large nasal cavity, giving it more detail and adding yellow tones that stand out against the white. The filigree of bone visible in the cavity draws our eye to that area, asking us to go deeper. A fine black crack running down the center of the skull suggests an opening into that interior, an interior that is somehow more than what encloses it. The black stripe of the background echoes the crack in the skull and amplifies the sense of looking within. Like curtains, the white panels to the left and right seem to part, leaving an opening. As she does in her flower paintings, O’Keeffe draws our eye to what is within, to what is visible only upon close looking or to what is not visible but equally present.
Things and Color
Unlike Cézanne’s Three Skulls watercolor, in which the white skulls are set off by a range of colors, O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull is a composition in whites. While white is often referred to as the absence of color, for O’Keeffe it was not only a color, but one rich with meaning. In speaking of her desert finds, she refers to “the beautiful white bones” and “sun-bleached bones [which] were most wonderful against the blue,” something she captured particularly in her pelvic bone paintings. In some of her most striking works, a stark white object is placed against a richly colored background, as in Single Lily with Red
(1928, Whitney Museum) or the Art Institute’s stunning pastel White Shell with Red
(1938). In both these works, the contrasting scales between foreground and background accentuate the whiteness of the foreground object.
For O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, whiteness could be a human quality as well. In a letter from April 1931, O’Keeffe writes to Stieglitz, “I just looked at the lock of hair—it is soft and beautiful and white like you are to me—.”
In a June 1931 letter, Stieglitz addresses O’Keeffe, saying “Well, Georgia, Dearest, Whitest Heart—.”
While there is a suggestion of innocence or purity of heart in O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s sense of “white,” it seems above all to connote “that which I desire,” “that which my heart rests in.” Whiteness is connected to affection and attraction. This fascination with white recalls Melville’s extended meditations on whiteness in Moby Dick. The whiteness of the whale draws Ahab on his metaphysical quest, whiteness suggesting the whale’s beauty, mystery, and ultimate unattainability, but also a malign indifference to the pursuer. For O’Keeffe there are no malevolent aspects to whiteness, but for her also it represents something beautiful that one is drawn to.
In a recent exhibition and accompanying catalogue, scholar Wanda Corn explores O’Keeffe’s clothing and its relationship to her art.
Corn shows that O’Keeffe’s signature colors in her early years, including the time when she painted Cow’s Skull, were black and white. Included in the exhibition were some of the white garments she cherished, including many made by O’Keeffe herself. In her remarkable study, Corn compares the garments to O’Keeffe’s paintings, showing how O’Keeffe’s colors and forms were an expression of herself. In her discussion of the skull paintings, Corn sees a personal dimension in the whiteness of the skulls and in the accompanying flowers, as well as in the V-shape, which was always O’Keeffe’s favorite neckline. Looking at Cow’s Skull through this lens, it is clear that O’Keeffe was, in a sense, placing herself in the painting. Even the delicate panels of the background, which resemble the pleats of her white blouses, seem to be extensions of her personality.
O’Keeffe’s views on color as a means of personal expression were very much shaped by her study of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912; translated into English 1914).
She first read the book as a young artist and it clearly influenced her early abstract paintings. But she returned to the book again at later points in her life and is known to have re-read it when she was 97 years old.
Kandinsky’s views deeply influenced O’Keeffe and played a large role in the look of paintings such as Cow’s Skull. For Kandinsky the goal of art is to capture the inner life of things, the non-material—or spiritual—which is at the heart of everything. This inner life is expressed through form and color. In his book, Kandinsky expresses his core idea that color operates directly on the soul like music:
Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.
The role of the artist, then, is to express this inner life of things through compositions of form and color.
O’Keeffe’s reading of Kandinsky may also have contributed to her penchant for the color white. In his lengthy analysis of the language of color, Kandinsky stresses the importance of white both for lightening other colors and as a color with its own meaning. Flanking the color wheel opposite black, white conveys life, birth, and potentiality. White is like “a great silence,” but a silence which is “pregnant with possibilities.” White and black form a primal antithesis conveying birth and death, “the two great possibilities of silence.”
In Cow’s Skull, O’Keeffe captures the silence of white as Kandinsky understood it and her own sense of the bones expressing “something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable.”
Another core idea in Kandinsky’s book is the importance of the experience of the artist. Nature—the world “out there”—is a source only to the extent that it activates something within the artist. What is activated allows the artist not only to depict things but to convey their inner life and personal meaning. This is true regardless of whether the artist retains the objective characteristics of the objects or not—representation and abstraction are in some sense equal. O’Keeffe follows Kandinsky in her combination of realistic and abstract forms in Cow’s Skull. There is no disharmony between foreground realism and background abstraction.
O’Keeffe also follows Kandinsky in his emphasis on the importance of the choice of objects to depict. “Every object has its own life and therefore its own appeal” and thus “the choice of object . . . must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”
O’Keeffe’s choice of objects—whether flowers, buildings, mountains, or skulls—was central to her work. She chose objects whose “inner note” resonated with her, whether for their formal beauty, as reminders of a place, or for some more mysterious correspondence. It is this correspondence which O’Keeffe brilliantly conveys in her paintings—a personal relationship to things which we in turn experience as we look at a work like Cow’s Skull.
Color was the primary way O’Keeffe expressed the inner life of things and her own relationship with them. Of her flower paintings she said: “Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know the flower is painted large to convey my experience with the flower—and what is my experience if it is not the color?”
An Affection for Things
In a recent interview, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion spoke of an experience he had when he was a young man, walking in the Luxembourg gardens.
He made a point of saying it was not a mystical experience, but more a powerful realization: the significance of things is not that they exist; their significance lies in what they mean to us—that they are attractive, useful, desirable. As an example, Marion picked up his pipe—a pipe that looked remarkably like Magritte’s pipe in his famous painting. Picking up the pipe, Marion presented it as a thing that exists, but which is unimportant until it has meaning for someone.
O’Keeffe expresses this same insight about things in her paintings. The personal dimension—the relationship with things—pervades her works. O’Keeffe conveys, above all, an affection for things. This affection begins with her attachment to particular objects, things which she paints again and again, and which in turn become part of her persona. Through form and color, she places herself in her pictures, so that we feel they are equally about the world and about herself. But perhaps what is most striking about O’Keeffe’s paintings is her joining of the personal and the universal. Her affection is not just for the physical objects, but for their inner life, that “something more” which is invisible and yet exists in everything. This “something more” is expressed through color, through magnification, and through revealing of complex interiors. It is expressed through the strange juxtaposition of objects. And it is expressed particularly well in Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses through the blending of realism and abstraction. The abstract background suggests the mysterious and ineffable that lies behind things and which we encounter if we go below the surface. Like all great works of art, Cow’s Skull engenders contemplation, calling us to go deeper, as O’Keeffe herself has done. The painting reveals O’Keeffe’s “loving eye,” a gaze of affection which is the beginning point of her art.
Sarah Greenough, My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915–1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 595–96 and note 342.
O’Keeffe wears this blanket in a series
of Stieglitz photos
from 1931. In the “Remarks” on the National Gallery’s webpage, the writer states that the blanket O’Keeffe wears in the photos appears in Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, but this is conjecture.
 In a letter to Stieglitz written while O’Keeffe was working on this painting, she refers to its American theme and mentions that she will be making the white parts whiter, clearly to accentuate the three American colors. My Faraway One, 604.
My Faraway One, 601–02, 604, 612 and note 379, 613 and note 383, and 618.
Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 7, 1936-January 17, 1937.
Art Institute of Chicago, watercolor with graphite and touches of gouache on wove paper, reference #1954.183
Julia Fish, “from a viewing and a second look” in Cezanne, Achim Borchardt-Hume, Gloria Groom, Caitlin Haskell, and Natalia Sidlina, eds. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2022), 211 (excerpt from the complete poem).
Filmmaker Wim Wenders uses this expression in discussing his photograph The Road to Emmaus (2000). Creative Conversations: Ben Quash with Wim Wenders, The Visual Commentary on Scripture.
Sarah Carrig Bond is an Art Historian and Independent Scholar with a Ph.D. in Medieval Art from Harvard University. Among her fields of expertise are General Art History; Medieval to Modern Christian Art; Chicago Churches; and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Posted on February 1, 2023
On Beautiful Things
Mary Sarah Ivers
As a photographer, there are certain images I create that quickly lose their novelty. And there are others that surprise me by the way they continue to reveal something in time. Those photos are where I recognize what it is that I am trying to say through this medium. There is a simple photo I’ve kept on my phone for years that is like this. It’s a photo of my mom’s nightstand that I took quickly one morning as I rushed to find something to wear...
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The presentation took place on April 14, 2023 at the John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C.
We thank all who attended and helped make it a success!
My daughter stopped, crouched down, and took hold of something. A seedpod this time, with tiny silicone-like spikes all over it, green in color. She stuck it in her pocket and we continued on. This little habit started before she was walking. Sometimes she’d grab an object, look at it, and then throw it back to the earth. Other times she’d look up and show it to me. Undoubtedly, this was something I had cultivated in her, but I also I realize that there’s something innate in her that is drawn to the things in this world, little pieces of beauty and curiosity. There’s a little collector or curator inside of us, a maker with a desire to have and to keep and to hold.