Georgia 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 objects such as autumn leaves and skunk cabbage found their way equally into her paintings.
O'Keeffe began collecting and painting animal bones around 1930. Marjorie Balge-Crozier has written: "O'Keeffe's interest in shapes first led her to notice the animal bones scattered across the New Mexico landscape and decide that they had something to say about the terrain. She began collecting them, and when she returned East, she brought back a barrel of bones. This became a standard procedure during the years that she traveled between New Mexico and New York. In August 1931, writing to Rebecca Salsbury James from Lake George, O'Keeffe says, 'I have been working on the trash I brought along -- my bones cause much comment.'" (in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 62)
The artist began experimenting with animal bones in her work in 1931 with her Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue (1931, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In this superb effort to create a uniquely American image, O'Keeffe isolated the cow's skull against the three colors of the country's flag in a simple but powerful composition. Later that same year she began incorporating her signature flowers into her skull compositions, resulting in wonderful works like Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931, The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois). In works like From the Faraway Nearby (1937, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), O'Keeffe introduced the landscape into her skull compositions. In that painting, the skull is floating above the pink desert landscape and pink and blue sky in a way that is almost surreal.
Lloyd Goodrich's discussion of From the Faraway Nearby relates to all of these fascinating skull paintings, of which Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory is one of the finest examples: "Each of the individual elements is painted with precise, exquisite realism, but their relations to one another have little to do with ordinary reality. The imagery in this and similar works is enigmatic; it might symbolize nature's eternal cycle of life and death, of mortality and new life, recurring endlessly in the space and light and impersonal beauty of the desert. These skull paintings continue the visionary strain in her earliest works, but in a far different language." (Whitney Museum of American Art, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1970, p. 24)
The skulls and bones symbolized many things to the artist -- not only the cycles of life and death, but also the role animals played in the history of our country and the West specifically. O'Keeffe and her fellow Stieglitz Circle artists spent the early decades of the twentieth-century searching for a distinctly American mode of painting. O'Keeffe's artistic investigation of the Western landscape and the bones and other relics that she found there was her contribution to the American idiom. For her, the bones also represented the New Mexico landscape with which she had become so enthralled.
Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory was exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery An American Place in 1939. In the statement that she prepared for the exhibition, O'Keeffe wrote: "I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven't known how ... So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than animals walking around ... The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho' it is vast and empty and untouchable -- and knows no kindness with all its beauty." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 62)