Painted circa 1921-22, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Reflection embodies the contradictions inherent in the artist’s best work which came to define her career and cement her legacy as one of the most enduring and intriguing figures in 20th-century American Art. Lake George Reflection, the most ambitious in scale of her works from the 1920s, is a meditation on the sublime, building upon the tradition of the 19th century Hudson River School artists who sought to capture the drama and beauty of the unspoiled landscape surrounding Lake George. Presented alternatively as both a vertical and horizontal composition, the work is an expression of the artist’s experimental thought process as she considered what it meant to be representational in an age of burgeoning abstraction in American Art. Horizontally, the painting exemplifies the boldly colorful landscapes which have become a hallmark of O’Keeffe’s career, foreshadowing the abstracted paintings of the New Mexico hills from her later years. When viewed vertically, as Lake George Reflection was first exhibited in 1923 at the Anderson Galleries, the infinite horizon shifts to a powerful vertical thrust, with the formerly symmetrical reflections of the landscape morphing into the interior folds of a magnified flower or echoing the bold and daring heights of a New York City skyscraper. This ambiguity of orientation results in a painting that is at once highly representational and wholly abstract, carefully constructed and malleable, and which defines the subtle power of O’Keeffe’s most dramatic and admired works. O’Keeffe signified the importance of certain works by including a hand-drawn star on the reverse or backing board; she noted this distinction on the verso of Lake George Reflection.
On June 10th, 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to New York City. That August, she visited Lake George in the Hudson River Valley with Alfred Stieglitz, the influential photographer and art dealer twenty years her senior whom she would marry in 1924. On this first extended trip to the area, the Stieglitz family’s 36-acre retreat provided a welcome respite from the city, and one that afforded creative inspiration and freedom. “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) Over the next decade, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz frequently visited Lake George, spending most of every summer and early fall on the family compound, first at ‘Oaklawn’ and later at ‘The Hill.’ The landscape and its environs seemed to stimulate her creatively and she often referred to it as ‘perfect.’ The flora and fauna, and the relationship she developed with botanist Donald Davidson, a Stieglitz family cousin, provided veritable fertile ground for artistic discovery.
Just as Lake George exhilarated O’Keeffe, it also ushered in a period of creativity and artistic exploration for Stieglitz, allowing him to view the landscape through new eyes. “Although in earlier summers he had all but overlooked the landscape at his family’s home in Lake George, New York, he now began to photograph it, stimulated both by O’Keeffe’s infectious enthusiasm for the natural world and her own paintings of the area. Citing her ability to put ‘her experiences in paint,’ Stieglitz wrote that he too endeavored to ‘put his feelings into form’ in his photographs of the trees, barns, and buildings, as well as the landscape and clouds that surrounded him.” (B.B. Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe, 2001, pp. 26-27) Whether sparked by lively competition or simply that O’Keeffe’s admiration of the landscape invigorated Stieglitz, both artists created some of their most bold, dynamic and experimental imagery during this time. Barbara Buhler Lynes notes, “Stieglitz’s investigation of equivalence began in the early 1920s at Lake George. O’Keeffe was involved with a parallel effort, working with color as Stieglitz had worked with light. Both his photograph and her painting suggest grand panoramas and infinite distances, while at the same time that vastness is overridden by patterns of flat, undulating shapes.” (Georgia O’Keeffe, 2001, p. 38)
In addition to the myriad of visual delights that the great view from the property afforded, it would not have been lost on O’Keeffe that she was on hallowed artistic ground. “As any visitor to Lake George, then or now, she would have been more aware of its role as a popular tourist destination reaching back to the early 1800s. In the wake of the French and Indian War (1754-63) and the American Revolution (1775-83), it captivated the hearts and minds of Americans, who were increasingly nostalgic about their history. The 1826 publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans sealed Lake George’s fate as an American icon.” (Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, p. 23). Many 19th century predecessors captured the autumnal foliage, verdant hills and crystalline lakes, putting forth a vision of the landscape as untouched and unspoiled. These Hudson River School depictions, often dramatized with sunrises and sunsets, emphasized the sublime in nature, a concept that would have no doubt interested O’Keeffe. “Over the past two centuries, the concept of the sublime—with its immediate sensation of awe inspiring infinite space and evocative color and light directly internalized to moments experienced in our own lives—has been substantially redefined by a small number of artists, writers, and critics, for whom it has become a vital source of spiritual values at times of increased secularism.” (Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of the Sublime, 2004, London, p. vii)
Seen as a landscape, Lake George Reflection is a meditation on the awesomeness of the open countryside of upstate New York found only a short distance from the hectic metropolis. Incorporating the groundbreaking experimentations from her early career, the rolling hills and water are depicted in the undulating forms so prevalent in O’Keeffe’s early abstractions of the previous decade. Similarly, the bulbous forms that line the foreground recall her abstract ‘Special’ series, also executed at Lake George a few years earlier. Taking these elements one step further, all is reflected, creating a virtual mirror image bifurcated by a dramatic horizontal cross-section. With its monumental scale, the resulting image echoes the images of sublimity in 19th-century art, which captured the grandeur of the landscape, an untouched splendor and a vastness seemingly born from the imagination. Lake George Reflection similarly suggests a landscape of infinite scale, confined by but not limited to the expanse of the canvas.
For the exhibition at Anderson Galleries in 1923, the first time Lake George Reflection was exhibited, O’Keeffe dictated that the painting be hung vertically. While the title suggests a certain formal interpretation to her work, the adjustment of orientation altered the viewer’s understanding of it, particularly when viewed in context with other work from the period. The change solely in orientation of Lake George Reflection, not to the painting, forces the viewer to understand the forms in a different manner. Marjorie Balge-Crozier describes this phenomenon in O’Keeffe’s works from this period, writing, “Manipulation of scale, depictions of fragments, precise lines and blurred edges, bold colors—all of these devices are used to create works that are emotional equivalents for her experiences. These are devices that can also elicit feelings of uncertainty, awe, and even terror in the spectator, whether one is looking at a close-up view of a flower or the splitting darkness of the Black Place. Paintings that are extremely minimal can appear at first as objects for calming meditation, then dissolve into uneasy questions of identity, with hills resembling body parts. In the end, the spectator is left with an equivalent sublime experience.” (Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of the Sublime, p. 103)
Particularly when understood vertically, Lake George Reflection encourages anthropomorphic comparisons. Sharyn Udall explains, “Some of her landscapes do contain forms that—perhaps without any conscious intention on her part—insist on some relationship to the body. At Lake George in 1919 O’Keeffe produced several paintings of bifurcated glowing forms that begin as landscape but become increasingly abstract.” (Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of the Sublime, p. 118) As a vertical work, the painting most closely relates to her magnified flower imagery, which she was simultaneously exploring. In works such as Flower Abstraction (1924, Whitney Museum of American Art), undulating lines and soft coral tones are quite clearly evocative of the delicate petals of a flower but the cragged vertical white line serves to bisect the image, echoing the compositional format of Lake George Reflection. Other more abstract works from the period, including Music—Pink and Blue No. 1 (1918, Seattle Art Museum) which was also in the Anderson Galleries show of 1923 and Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow (1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art), are similarly suggestive.
While O’Keeffe’s works, such as Lake George Reflection and her iconic flower paintings, seem to inherently suggest comparisons with the human form, something she patently rejected, the evolution of O’Keeffe from daring female Modernist to a sexualized media sensation was undoubtedly fostered, if not masterminded by Stieglitz. Beginning in 1918, he created a series of photographs which depicted O’Keeffe in the nude. “As art critic Henry McBride put it: ‘It made a stir. Mona Lisa got one portrait of herself worth talking about. O’Keeffe got a hundred. It put her on the map. Everybody knew the name. She became what is known as a newspaper personality.’ Moreover these photographs forged the first public image of O’Keeffe. She was seen as a sexually liberated, modern woman, and this idea of her became a visual equivalent of Stieglitz’s ardent and ongoing promotion of O’Keeffe’s art as a direct manifestation of her sexuality.” (B.B. Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe, 2001)
Regardless of the source of these intimate connotations attributed to her most admired artwork, Lake George Reflection reflects the pictorial strategies that O'Keeffe developed as an avant-garde American Modernist: interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities that O'Keeffe associated with her organic subjects and which are the source of their strength. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp emphasizes the role of Lake George Reflection in pioneering this element of O’Keeffe’s best work, explaining, "In the spring of 1923, O'Keeffe incorporated Stieglitz's cloud motif into a pair of abstractions redolent of her earlier interest in Art Nouveau, Pink Moon and Blue Lines and Red Lines. Pink Moon and Blue Lines returns to a palette of magenta, lemon, and aqua arrayed in vertical waves on either side of a pink moon on a deep blue ground. She knew she was breaking down aesthetic barriers. Later, she said, 'When I entered the art world...you weren't supposed to paint yellow...and pink pictures.' Red Lines shows vertical waves of pale blue and buttressing columns of deep red divided by a think pink line. Both compositions derive from O'Keeffe's bisected canvases of the Lake George horizon, but upended. This technique began in her show with the vertical display of Lake George Reflection, a predictable landscape except that the horizon line runs up and down and is enlivened with pastel bubbles. Collector Peggy Guggenheim admitted that she could not decide which way to hang it. Studying photographs taken from various perspectives was enhancing O'Keeffe's ability to paint pictures that could be interpreted in multiple ways--paintings that could be hung vertically or horizontally." (Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 2004, p. 219) Painted at the height of O’Keeffe’s most courageous and innovative creative output, Lake George Reflection confirms her prowess as a master colorist, daring modernist, avant-garde thinker and provocateur.