In 1939, three years after she painted Pink Spotted Lillies, Georgia O'Keeffe wrote, "A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower—the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower—lean forward to smell it—maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking—or give it to someone to please them. Still—in a way—nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven't time—and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself—I'll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—" (as quoted in N. Callaway, ed., Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.)
With its vibrant colors and energetic composition, Pink Spotted Lillies is a mesmerizing example of Georgia O'Keeffe's hallmark style. Her magnified images of flowers became her best known and most celebrated paintings and still resonate with audiences nearly a century later. In Pink Spotted Lillies, O'Keeffe successfully produces an original balance of form and color, emphasizing the organic harmonies of the flowers as well as their visual power. "Her celebration of flowers was an expression of her feeling for the world around her, a reminder, bold and insistent, of a force besides that of speed and noise and machinery. Here was something else: ravishingly lovely, silent, breathtaking, and surprising." (R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 277)
O'Keeffe began creating her signature flower paintings in 1918, although they were shown for the first time by Alfred Stieglitz in 1923. By 1924, she began working on a larger scale and her exhibit the following year at Anderson Galleries immediately upset the New York art world and elicited a range of strong opinions from the press. Nicholas Callaway writes, "Many found [the flower paintings] to be unabashedly sensual, in some cases overtly erotic. Others perceived them as spiritually chaste...Added to the shock of their...outrageous color and scandalous (or sacred) shapes was the fact that these paintings had been created by a woman at a time when the art world was almost exclusively male...[The flower paintings] 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." (Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, n.p.)
Craving more space for her work, in April 1936 O’Keeffe and Stieglitz moved from the Shelton Hotel to 405 East Fifty-fourth Street. Likely inspired by the spring weather, around this time O’Keeffe began two new series of flower imagery: pink spotted lilies and jonquils. This brief period produced some of the artist’s most successful works, such as Jonquils No. 3 (1936, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri). O'Keeffe painted a series of four images depicting pink spotted lilies: two watercolors and two oils, including the present work. This working method was typical of the artist, as she often created series of four, five or six works depicting a single theme.
Pink Spotted Lillies showcases two efflorescent lilies enveloped in luxuriant verdant leaves. As if dancing across the picture plane, the petals and leaves curl and twist over each other, transforming the bloomed flowers into rapturous forms. Always a brilliant colorist, vivid hues of blue and green give weight and drama to the composition, both complementing and intensifying the luscious pinks of the flower. This dynamic contrast of colors was something O’Keeffe employed throughout her most productive years of the 1920s and 1930s, recalling her earliest large-scale oils such as Pink Tulip (1926, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland).
By 1936, O’Keeffe had also been making yearly trips to New Mexico, which she had been visiting since 1929. New Mexico had a profound effect on O’Keeffe’s art, and as she began to incorporate new imagery into her oeuvre, her flowers remained but were rarer. Painted with brilliant light similar to the Southwestern sun, works such as Pink Spotted Lillies recall her early signature style while foreshadowing the artist’s permanent move West in 1949.
As she does in her best work, here O’Keeffe chooses to magnify her lilies, forcing the leaves and petals to the edges of the canvas, thus simplifying the flower into forms and patterns. While O’Keeffe’s work was primarily influenced by her experiences in nature, the artist also gleaned inspiration from her fellow Modernists. As in many of her works, the magnified perspective of Pink Spotted Lillies recalls the photography of her contemporaries Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. After viewing the work of fellow Stieglitz artists, O’Keeffe wrote to Strand in 1917, “I think you people have made me see—or should I say feel new colors—I cannot say other yet but I think I’m going to make them.” (as quoted in S.W. Peters, Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 186) Indeed, O’Keeffe became a master of color in both her abstractions and depictions of magnified flowers, so much so that Charles Demuth once described how, in O’Keeffe’s works, “each color almost regains the fun it must have felt within itself on forming the first rainbow.” (as quoted in C.C. Eldridge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 33)
Explaining why she chose to paint flowers, O’Keeffe recalled, "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it—it's your world for a moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." (as quoted in N. Callaway, ed. Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.) It is one of her lasting achievements that she could at once convey in a flower the intimate and the monumental, and to transform one of nature's most delicate objects into a powerful artistic statement.