As is true with Georgia O'Keeffe's finest works, the strength of My Autumn lies in its careful balance of realism and abstraction, its intricate layering of objective and subjective meaning and its wonderful synthesis of form and color. This important work reflects her intense study of objects around her husband, Alfred Stieglitz's, Lake George home. O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the forms and colors that she found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from wonderfully sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest ones such as autumn leaves found their way equally into her paintings. Rather than simply creating an objective visual record of that which she discovered in nature, O'Keeffe chose to render the forms in My Autumn in an abstract way by including her subjective emotions about the real objects into her representations. My Autumn, painted in 1929, characterizes her work of this period with its simplified abstraction and vibrant color.
During the 1920s O'Keeffe began painting magnified images of flowers and leaves, enabling the artist to concentrate on color and form. Discussing her choice of still lifes, Marjorie Balge-Crozier writes, "Disciplined and independent, she could control this genre to a much greater degree than she could the figure or landscape. She could study the objects with an intensity that made their shapes conducive to abstraction and mystery when represented in paint. As she said, she rarely painted anything she didn't know well, and that meant she needed time to look closely at a thing from many angles to decide what she wanted to do inside her head before starting to work." ("Still Life Redefined" in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 53) My Autumn embodies O'Keeffe's forceful paintings of enlarged natural forms and at the same time highlights the leaves' vibrant and beautiful vermilion and golden hues.
Much of O'Keeffe's inspiration came from Lake George, where the artist spent time with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, during the summer and autumn months. As Charles Eldredge notes, "Alfred Stieglitz, like many urbanites then and now, also had a rural base, at Lake George in upstate New York, and every year he joined other members of the large family at his mother's home there. In August 1918, he was accompanied by O'Keeffe, who was warmly received by the mater familias and the sundry siblings, in-laws, and offspring of the Stieglitz tribe." (Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 39) Soon O'Keeffe began to take frequent sojourns to the region and embarked on a series of paintings related to the lake and her impressions of the surrounding natural landscape.
While O'Keeffe painted year-round, "she came to feel that autumn was her time for painting. She was rested, often alone with Stieglitz, and with many feelings and images stored from her summer out-of-doors...Many of her finest Lake George paintings were done at this time of year in October colors..." (L. Lisle, Portrait of an Artist, New York, 1986, p. 197) The title of the present work embodies her very personal feelings toward the season. In a 1929 letter to Mitchell Kennerley O'Keeffe wrote, "I want to tell you about the paintings too--. First the yellow one--I always look forward to the Autumn--to working at that time...and continue what I had been trying to put down of the Autumn for years--But as I walked far up into the hills--through the woods--one morning--it occurred to me that the thing I enjoy of the autumn is that no matter what is happening to me--no matter how gloomy I may be feeling--so I came back with my hickory leaf and daisy [Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy, 1928, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois]--to paint something that I know is--no matter what people do to me or anyone else--I also enjoyed making it reach up by the way I made it reach out--" (Georgia O'Keeffe Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 187) With its vibrant hues of yellow and crimson, My Autumn, clearly exemplifies O'Keeffe's passion for this time of year.
The beauty of My Autumn lies in O'Keeffe's exploration of color, form and light. She stated, "It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something. For me, that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 36) O'Keeffe often acknowledged the substantial influence of her teacher Arthur Wesley Dow on her works. She recalled, "This man had one dominating idea; to fill space in a beautiful way--and that interested me." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, "The Real Meaning of Things" in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 1) As a student of Dow, O'Keeffe was influenced by his teachings of what was known to his students as "the trinity of power": line, notan--the Japanese concept of using balanced values of darks and lights--and color, demonstrated in My Autumn. These ideas were further reinforced through her own readings in modern art theory and through Alfred Stieglitz.
Much has been written about O'Keeffe's relationship with Stieglitz and the influence each had on the other's work and it is likely that photography--both Stieglitz's and others--had some impact on her paintings. She employed the photographic techniques of the detailed close-up and magnified image, as well as of the cropped edges of the picture plane. O'Keeffe's close study of objects also paralleled photographer Edward Weston's use of the camera's capacity to photograph still life compositions, turning natural forms into abstract images. Weston's still lifes also elicited varied interpretations. Seen as both sensual and spiritual, these photographs and O'Keeffe's still life paintings manifest the same duality.
O'Keeffe's abstracted images of leaves were likely also influenced by the work of Arthur Dove since he too used them as seen in his Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (1911/12, location unknown). She came across this work in Arthur Jerome Eddy's book, Cubists and Post-Impressionism of 1914. The work "stood out for its abstract organic shapes that coalesced into a seductive, undulating, rhythmic pattern." Later O'Keeffe noted, "I discovered Dove and picked him out before I was picked out and discovered. Where did I see him? A reproduction in a book. The Eddy book, I guess, a picture of Fall leaves. Then I trekked the streets looking for others. In the Forum Exhibition there were two or three--then there were more." (as quoted in D.B. Balken, Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 21) O'Keeffe was introduced to Dove by Stieglitz who showed the artist in his gallery, "291." Dove's commitment to the natural world was as strong as hers and he similarly painted natural, undulating forms, rather than machine-made ones. Each artist responded to the spiritual rather than the intellectual and clearly respected each other's work. O'Keeffe often commented on his paintings and hung them in her home, while Dove said about her, "This girl is doing naturally what many of us fellows are trying to do, and failing." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 13)
In My Autumn O'Keeffe incorporates the natural world as well as the abstract one. She flattens the leaves, layering forms and colors, reflecting the pictorial strategies that she had developed as an avant-garde American Modernist: an interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. O'Keeffe paints the image as an objective interpretation of found leaves as well as a meditation on form and color. The work demonstrates her ability to balance seemingly opposite forces, separating the tree from its natural environment and concentrating on form and color. The minimal modeling of forms indicate some three-dimensionality but not enough to destroy a sense of flattened design. Further abstracting forms of color, lines dissect the work emanating from the center of the composition towards the edges of the canvas, twisting and curling. It is this layering of visual interpretations that makes My Autumn a characteristically remarkable work.
Composed of brilliant and varying hues, My Autumn is an early affirmation of the artist's passion for color. "O'Keeffe's early attraction to color developed through her love of the outdoors, a Midwestern upbringing, and her early art education in girls' schools. Colors meant more to her than words. Critic Henry McBride would point out that O'Keeffe's color 'outblazed' that of the other painters in the Stieglitz circle." (J.G. Castro, The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1985, p. 162) Throughout her career, color remained as important to her artistic spirit as form and content. In 1930, O'Keeffe wrote to William Milliken, the Director of the Cleveland Art Museum, "Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world--life as I see it." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, p. 202) Much of O'Keeffe's philosophy about the use of color was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's color theories. The artist claimed that "color directly influences the soul." In My Autumn, she relies on subtle gradations in color to define form and create sculptural depth using varying shades of red and blends the hues into deep blacks and steely grays. By transforming the colors, she is able to give the work depth and dimension.
In the 1920s, with these works of Lake George, her flower paintings and her views of Manhattan, O'Keeffe began to achieve a measure of acclaim. In 1926, the journalist Blanche Matthias wrote a celebratory biographical account of O'Keeffe's success. For Matthias, she embodied a feminist ideal, "She is like the flickering flame of a candle, steady, serene, softly brilliant...this woman who lives fearlessly, reasons logically, who is modest, unassertive, and spiritually beautiful, and who, because she dares paint as she feels, has become not only one of the most magical artists of our time, but one of the most stimulatingly powerful." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, p. 294)