The magnified images of flowers that Georgia O'Keeffe painted became her best known and most celebrated paintings. These years dedicated to exploration and development of floral themes yielded some of the most important works of her oeuvre, as focusing on floral subjects freed O'Keeffe to concentrate on color and form. In Cannas, O'Keeffe creates a perfect balance of form and color, emphasizing the natural harmonies of the flowers and of nature. "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)
In 1919, the year Cannas was painted, was the year O'Keeffe began painting the flower images she became so well known for. O'Keeffe painted six watercolors of cannas then painted the present painting as part of a series of eight oils. This working method was typical of the artist, as she often created series of four, five or six canvases inspired by a single theme. She said: "I work with an idea for a long time. It's like getting acquainted with a person, and I don't get acquainted easily... Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract." This early series of cannas were painted either geometrically and angularly or with rounded and flowing forms. Cannas is an example of the latter, with full, lush leaves enveloping the large petals of the flowers.
Cannas reflects the pictorial strategies that O'Keeffe had developed as an avant-garde American modernist: interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. The image is at once an objective interpretation of a canna as well as a meditation on form and color. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities, which O'Keeffe associated with her flowers and which are the source of their strength. Cannas demonstrates O'Keeffe's ability to balance seemingly opposite forces, separating the flower from its natural environment and concentrating on form and color.
Whereas many Modernists such as Charles Sheeler, John Marin and Arthur Dove turned to the industrial sector for guidance and inspiration in subject matter, O'Keeffe embraced the natural world. "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."(Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, p. 278)
Unlike O'Keeffe's large-scale canvases, Cannas is a fraction of the size of her smaller, jewel-like representations of a single or group of flowers. On a more intimate scale, Cannas and other small works, through the ingenious manipulation of color, form and composition, carry an equally powerful visual impact to the larger floral paintings. By magnifying a small, traditionally feminine subject, she creates a bold abstraction. The curves of the petals and leaves are transformed into expanses of delicately modulated color. At the same time monumental and intimate, the work reflects the artist's dedication to showing the viewer the beauty and wonder in nature.
Many scholars have remarked on O'Keeffe's creative, aesthetic, and artistic affinity for the fiery reds that she used throughout her career. It is well known that much of her inspiration came from the summer and autumn months spent at Lake George with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. While she painted year round, "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) It is possible to relate the red and deep purple of the cannas in the present work to the artist's affinity for fall colors.
In Cannas, the purple leaves are used to complement and intensify the vibrant red of the flower. To balance the vibrant colors of the flowers, O'Keeffe used a flat, ambiguous background of grays and browns. This background gives the composition no sense of distance or space. The magnified and cropped flowers, vibrant colors and flattened background add to the surreal quality of the work.
O'Keeffe applied Modernist aesthetics to natural forms as a way of drawing the viewer's attention to their often under appreciated beauty. Explaining why she chose to paint flowers, she said, "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, np) Cannas is a wonderful example of O'Keeffe's powerful yet intimate paintings of flowers, forcing us to indeed look at these flowers, giving us the world for a moment.