Georgia O’Keeffe first depicted the waxy, architectural bloom known as the Calla Lily in 1923, ultimately creating a series of eight compositions, in both oil and pastel, featuring one or two blooms, throughout that year. Calla Lilies, one of two paintings of the subject in 1924 and the first to depict three blooms in a single composition is one of the most sophisticated and modern of her explorations of the subject. Charles Eldredge wrote of the pictorial and expressive possibilities that O'Keeffe realized in these striking floral subjects, "In the callas O'Keeffe discovered the ideal combination of organic subject and formalist design that was to motivate her finest work. ("Calla Moderna: 'Such a Strange Flower,' B.B. Lynes, et al., Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 25) Calla Lilies is a sophisticated meditation on color, form and line and a provocative composition that definitively positions O'Keeffe as one of the leading figures of the avant-garde.
O'Keeffe was not the first Modernist to adopt the calla lily as a subject and she credited works by her friend and fellow Steiglitz Circle artist, Marsden Hartley, who had begun depicting the flower in his Still Life No. 9 of 1917 (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota), as the genesis of her interest in the blossom, "I had seen Hartley's calla lilies, and thought I would try one to see if I could understand what it was all about." (as quoted in "Calla Moderna: 'Such a Strange Flower,'" Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, p. 25) Her curiosity in the pictorial possibilities of the flower were accompanied by a cool detachment, "I started thinking about them because people either liked or disliked them intensely, while I had no feeling about them at all." (as quoted in R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 305) This allowed O'Keeffe to focus on the flower's physical attributes, which she explored in a serial format, capturing the blossom at various angles and settings. These works collectively form a counterpoint to another major still life theme of the early 1920s, the weightier and more richly-hued alligator pear.
In Calla Lilies, one of only two compositions of calla lilies to include three blossoms, O’Keeffe has arranged the white flowers, punctuated by their bright yellow stamen, stacked vertically. The flowers are magnified, and set against a background of similar whites and greys, blurring the distinction between calla and background. The verisimilitude of the palette has enabled O’Keeffe to more readily demonstrate her technical prowess. The careful arrangement of like tones, set adjacent to but not a top one another, creates a carefully modulated surface that is among her most sophisticated. The closely cropped composition, which removes the flowers from any outside context, forces the viewer to focus on the blossoms well-delineated forms. Only the verdant stems and yellow stamen interrupt the otherwise white composition, serving as accent marks. As a result, Calla Lilies becomes a strikingly beautiful study of line, color and the relation of forms in space.
A truly modern depiction, Calla Lilies evokes the medium of photography with its abstracted, magnified and cropped composition and limited palette of gray and white tones. Though O'Keeffe denied the direct influence of photography on her art, her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz makes the possibility seem entirely likely. Patterson Sims wrote: "Her direct observation of lush natural details has antecedents on the photographs of de Meyer, Sheeler, and Steichen, and parallels in the contemporary photographs of Blossfeldt, Cunningham, Hagemeyer, and Strand. O'Keeffe's magnifications also developed simultaneously with the beginning of Stieglitz's detail-oriented photo portrait of her. The atmosphere of innovation in which O'Keeffe operated was thus as directed toward photography as it was toward painting." (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1981, p. 23) In Calla Lilies, the tight cropping as well as the subtly modulated gray tones demonstrate this influence.
Fellow artist Oscar Bluemner wrote of O'Keeffe's proclivity for subtly modulated colors and working in series, "Color, not of dramatic duachrome contrast, not triads demoting mysterious complex of musician or poet, but single color essentially felt, or at most, scales of related colors; one color to one line, one color and one line to one thought, one thought to one painting, a hundred paintings to a hundred different versions of one idea." (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, New York, 1991, p. 128)
O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the forms and colors 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 objects such as autumn leaves, skunk cabbage and animal bones found their way equally into O'Keeffe's paintings. In 1944, the artist said: "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." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. vi)
Calla Lilies reflects the pictorial strategies that O'Keeffe had developed as an avant-garde American Modernist: interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. The image is at once an objective interpretation of a flower as well as a meditation on form and color. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities, which O'Keeffe associated with her flowers and which are the source of their strength. By magnifying a small, traditionally feminine subject, she creates a bold abstraction. At the same time monumental and intimate, the work reflects the artist's dedication to showing the viewer the beauty and wonder in nature.
It would be possible to read O'Keeffe's skillfully crafted, precisely rendered, almost photographic images as little more than literal renderings of their subjects, concerned solely with verisimilitude and eliminating all traces of the artist. Marjorie Balge-Crozier, however, argues for a more personal reading of these pictures, "combined with the enlarged, close-up view of the object, O'Keeffe's technique offers an assertive brand of realism that prompts a more modern, emotional involvement with the subject, an involvement heightened by the fact that the subject is abstracted just enough to remind us that it is not solely the 'thing' it purports to be. It can be many things, including a surrogate for the artist herself." (Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 74)
As with all of O'Keeffe's best work, Calla Lilies seamlessly combines sensuous beauty with underlying formalist concerns to create a psychologically compelling work that feels as contemporary today as when it was first produced. When O’Keeffe’s depictions of this unusual flower were first shown, they aroused a considerable response due to their utterly unique and bold aesthetic. "They were extraordinarily controversial and sought-after, and made their maker a celebrity. It was the flowers that begat the O'Keeffe legend in the heady climate of the 1920s." (N. Calloway, Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.) The magnified images of flowers that Georgia O'Keeffe painted in the 1920s and 1930s became her best known and most celebrated paintings. These years dedicated to exploration and development of floral themes yielded some of the most important works of her oeuvre. The thoughtful and highly sophisticated study of line and composition as demonstrated by Calla Lilies characterizes her finest work.