Beginning in 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, along with many friends and family members, spent the summers and early autumn months at Lake George. The property, purchased by Stieglitz’s father in 1886, was named Oaklawn after a majestic centuries-old oak tree. The flora and fauna found on the property, particularly in autumn, inspired O’Keeffe, and the landscape at Oaklawn provided rich artistic fodder. In a letter to Mitchell Kennerley dated January 1929, O'Keeffe 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--But 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 daisy--" (Georgia O'Keeffe Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 187).
The autumn season provided an opportunity for a dense, sensuous and rich palette, and leaves, with their turning colors, became a favorite subject at Oaklawn. The foliage prompted a series of approximately 29 works, painted between 1922 and 1931, of which Leaves Under Water is one of the first. Marjorie Balge-Crozier notes, “Leaves by themselves do not turn up in the history of still-life painting until O’Keeffe elevates them to that privileged position.” (as quoted in, E.B. Coe, Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, exhibition catalogue, Glens Falls, New York, 2013, p. 63)
O'Keeffe's abstracted images of leaves were possibly influenced by the work of Arthur Dove, as evident in his Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (1911/12, location unknown). Dove's commitment to the natural world was as strong as hers and he similarly painted natural, undulating forms. Each artist responded to the spiritual rather than the intellectual and clearly respected each other's work. O'Keeffe often commented on his paintings and hung them in her home, while Dove said about her, "This girl is doing naturally what many of us fellows are trying to do, and failing." (as quoted in C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 13)
In Leaves Under Water, O'Keeffe flattens the leaves into planes of color, reflecting the modern pictorial strategies that she had developed. The coral-colored stem of the center oak leaf is a bright dash of color against the greenish-brown of the leaf which melds into the dark blue of the water, suggesting that the leaf is just below the water’s surface. Another oak leaf is cut off on the lower left, its edges curling up slightly as it floats to the water’s surface. Ripples of red, purple and blue surround the main motif suggesting fallen leaves swaying under the water. The subtle gradations of color in Leaves Under Water define form and create a sense of depth. While painted on an intimate scale, Leaves Under Water, with its subtle modulations of color and economy of form, is a small but impactful example of O’Keeffe at the height of her abilities.