“Leaves by themselves do not turn up in the history of still-life painting until O’Keeffe elevates them to that privileged position.” (M. Balge-Crozier, as quoted in Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, exhibition catalogue, Glens Falls, New York, 2013, p. 63) As in her exultant painting, The Red Maple at Lake George, Georgia O’Keeffe transformed the often overlooked and literally downtrodden natural form of the leaf into a powerfully personal subject to be closely studied and admired. Like her notorious flower paintings first developed in the 1920s, the present work from 1926 imbeds an object of everyday life with layers of association and elements of abstraction, creating a monumental totem that is both deeply connected to nature and a transcendent emotional experience. Employing a dramatic contrast of sensuous and angular forms, and bright red and cool gray hues, The Red Maple at Lake George demonstrates why “Of all her Lake George subjects, the leaf pictures are perhaps her most personal and autobiographical statement that O’Keeffe left of her years in northern New York.” (E.B. Coe, “’Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, p. 64)
In 1918, O’Keeffe began to regularly depart New York City to spend time amidst nature at Lake George. 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) The property, purchased by Stieglitz’s father in 1886, was named Oaklawn after a majestic centuries-old oak tree. 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.”
One of the most notable sources of inspiration for both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz during their visits to the country was the old maple tree on the grounds of Oaklawn, which was the setting for many Stieglitz family photographs. Both artists visited and immortalized this tree in their artwork over the years, even after the family moved to the Hill in 1919. As Stieglitz recounted in a 1921 letter, “We had just gone down to the lakeside to look at a red maple by the water. Georgia is painting it…Every fall she has painted that tree.” (as quoted in Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, p. 34) From thoroughly abstracted colorful watercolors during her first visit in 1918, to her anthropomorphic close-up of the gnarled trunk in The Old Maple, Lake George (1926, Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi), O’Keeffe’s fascination with this maple tree proved a focal point of her time spent at Lake George. This connection is further cemented through Stieglitz’s photographs from these years, not only of the same craggy maple tree but also of O’Keeffe posing alongside the area’s historic trunks.
While part of the whole vitality of the tree, the leaf is an interesting subject for, once fallen, it becomes its own individual form with colorful hues that ironically bespeak death rather than life. In this way, O’Keeffe’s artistic interest in the leaf relates to the tree but also to her vast collection of other organic detritus, including bones, shells and feathers. Erin B. Coe explains, “Given the variety of trees that grew on the Stieglitz estate—birch, chestnut, maple, hickory, and oak—the paths and trails were littered with an array of leaves. O’Keeffe gathered them during her many long walks along the paths on the property and trails in the woods. Leaves also exemplified her kinship with autumn and sensitivity to seasonal change; she once revealed, ‘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--I come back with my hickory leaf and my daisy.’ O’Keeffe began to concentrate on this subject in 1922 and continued to explore it until 1931, resulting in some twenty-nine canvases.” (“’Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” p. 63)
With the fiery hues of The Red Maple at Lake George, O’Keeffe revels in the contradictory nature and blazing colors of the leaf during fall. “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) O’Keeffe herself wrote, “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.” (as quoted in Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, p. 43)
Beyond her concentration on the sumptuous hues of autumn, many scholars have remarked on O'Keeffe's creative, aesthetic and artistic affinity for the reds that she used throughout her career, from her cannas and poppies to the apples and Southwestern hills. Here, the flaming red of the maple leaf infuses the entire composition with warmth and vibrancy, bleeding from the central leaf itself into the angles and curves of the abstract background. Lines dissect the work as they emanate from the lower center to the edges of the canvas, twisting and curling like tongues of fire amidst grays and blacks reminiscent of charcoal and ash. The angular fissures along the edges of the leaf hark back to the memento mori aspect of the leaf separated from its tree, while imperfections—like the curled up edge at left and an amorphous break in the segment at lower right—have been said to carry more personal inspirations. Coe explains, “O’Keeffe sometimes used slight tears in her leaf and flower compositions both as a compelling formal device and as a subtle allusion to events in her life. As others have noted, these tiny fissures may be a reference to the disintegration that occurs with fallen leaves or a comment on her failing relationship with Alfred Stieglitz.” (“’Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” p. 64)
At the same time, the concentration on line and form, especially along the angled edges of black and gray, anticipate the abstract depictions of one of O’Keeffe’s favorite landscape subjects in the Southwest, the Black Place. In a statement that can describe much of her most famous work, O'Keeffe declared, "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 C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 36) In this emphasis, she was highly influenced by the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow about "the trinity of power": line, color and notan—the Japanese concept of using balanced values of darks and lights. Dow in fact derived his principles through the minute study of a single leaf, and here O’Keeffe employs these three elements to create a supremely striking depiction of that same inspiration.
O’Keeffe also incorporated principles of photography into her abstracted visions of nature. As seen in the present work, she employs 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 paralleled photographers Paul Strand and Edward Weston's use of the camera to turn natural still-life forms into abstract images. Seen as both sensual and spiritual, these photographs and O'Keeffe's still-life paintings like The Red Maple at Lake George manifest the same duality. Indeed, part of O’Keeffe’s original fame derived from Stieglitz’s controversial cropped nude photographs of her, and his images of both her and the Lake George landscape were constant measuring points and references for her own work. “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) Sarah Greenough summarizes these various stylistic influences: “Dow and Strand had shown her how, by moving in close to an object and radically cropping it, she could turn reality into an abstraction; Stieglitz now showed her how part of an object could be expressive of both the whole and the artist herself.” (“Toughing the Centre: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s Artistic Dialogue,” Georgia O’Keeffe, exhibition catalogue, London, 2016, p. 55)
During the 1920s, while many Modernists focused primarily on the industrial sector for guidance and inspiration in subject matter, O'Keeffe embraced the natural world and painted magnified images of flowers and leaves. Indeed, the artist Arthur Dove, who was a close friend and also explored the subject of leaves in his early abstractions, proclaimed, "This girl is doing naturally what many of us fellows are trying to do, and failing." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 13) As epitomized by the present painting, "O'Keeffe's work, a counter-response to technology, was soft, voluptuous and intimate. Full of rapturous colors and yielding surfaces, it furnishes a sense of astonishing discovery…Though the work is explicitly feminine, it is convincingly and triumphantly powerful, a combination that had not before existed." (R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 278) By applying her Modernist aesthetics to natural forms, O'Keeffe drew the viewer's attention to their often unappreciated beauty. The Red Maple at Lake George exemplifies her work of this period with its simplified abstraction and vibrant color evoking the sensuous, autumnal New England landscape that enthralled her.