Georgia O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the shapes and colors that she found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest objects such as autumn leaves and skunk cabbage found their way equally into her paintings. These years dedicated to exploration and development of natural themes yielded some of the most important works of her oeuvre as it freed O'Keeffe to concentrate on color and form. In the present painting, Corn No. III, O'Keeffe creates a perfect balance of form and color, emphasizing the natural harmonies of nature.
O'Keeffe's painting changed dramatically when she began to spend time at Lake George in upstate New York with her husband Alfred Stieglitz and his family during the summer and autumn months beginning in August 1918. This change included "her own intuitive decision to transform the 'uterine personal' subject matter of her first charcoals into shelter shapes of a more covert and objective order: barns, shells, fruit, vegetables, trees, flowers and skyscrapers." (S.W. Peters, Becoming O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 224)
O'Keeffe used her natural surroundings at the Lake and her garden at the Stieglitz home for inspiration for a series of diverse paintings including Corn No. III, painted in 1924. O'Keeffe wrote, "I had a garden at Lake George for some years. The growing corn was one of my special interests--the light colored veins of the dark green leaves reaching out in opposite directions. And every morning a little drop of dew would have run down the veins into the center of this plant like a little lake--all fine and fresh." (as quoted in B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, p. 246)
O'Keeffe has said that she rarely painted anything she did not know well. Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier writes, "O'Keeffe's [works] from the early 1920s are a series of explorations in looking at things close at hand -- the fruit and vegetables grown at Lake George, the leaves picked up and examined in all their various shapes, the clam shells gathered in Maine, the flowers bought in New York. Yet if we compare them to the real things or other artists' representations of such things, it rapidly becomes evident that O'Keeffe has made these objects uniquely hers. She has recognized, as most modern artists, that the work of art is an object itself, a thing apart from that which is represented." (in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 53)
In 1924, O'Keeffe painted three oil depictions of corn: the present painting, Corn No. 2 (The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico) and Corn Dark (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This working method was typical of the artist, as she often created series of canvases painted on a single theme. O'Keeffe 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 series of corn were all painted on tall, thin canvases. O'Keeffe fills the canvas with a single plant, rendering the leaves from an aerial view.
Henri Matisse's clear influence on O'Keeffe's work is evident in Corn No. III. O'Keeffe was first exposed to Matisse's works in 1908 at the artist's first American show at 291, Stieglitz's gallery. Later in 1915, O'Keeffe repeatedly visited Matisse's exhibition at the Montross Gallery. "As gifted colorists, both had a passion for flowers...Both made frequent use of an imaginary plumb line. As Matisse described it for himself in Jazz (1947): 'Around this fictive line the arabesque develops. I have derived constant benefit from my use of the plumb line. The vertical is in my mind. It helps give my lines a precise direction...I never indicate a curvewithout consciousness of its relation to the vertical.'...Both artists strove to reduce nature motifs instead of inventing purely abstract forms..." (Becoming O'Keeffe, p. 122)
Corn No. III 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 corn as well as a meditation on form and color. She has abstracted leaves of corn by removing the plant from its natural environment and painting it in an aerial view. She magnifies the plant forcing the leaves to the edges and cropping them. The canvas is bisected vertically by the veins of the leaves leading into the vortex at center, simplifying the corn into forms and patterns. By using the swirling formation, she adds the feeling of enclosure conveying her theme of shelter-like shapes.
As a student of Arthur Wesley Dow, O'Keeffe was influenced by his teachings of what was known to his students as "the trinity of power": line, notan--the Japanese concept of using balanced values of darks and lights--and color. O'Keeffe stated, "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) O'Keeffe's belief in the importance of line, shadowing and color is all evident in Corn No. III.
This focus on the qualities and intricacies of color study were nothing new to O'Keeffe. Throughout her career, color remained as important to her artistic spirit as form and content. Georgia O'Keeffe wrote to William Milliken, the Director of the Cleveland Art Museum, "Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world--life as I see it." (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 202) Much of O'Keeffe's philosophy about the use of color was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's color theories who claimed that "color directly influences the soul." (as quoted in C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 24)
In Corn No. III, vivid yellows are used to complement and intensify the rich verdant shades. The curves of the leaves are transformed into expanses of delicately modulated color. To balance the vibrant colors, O'Keeffe used a flat, ambiguous background of grays and mauves. This background gives the composition no sense of distance or space. The magnified and cropped leaves, dynamic 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 unappreciated 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) Corn No. III is a masterful example of O'Keeffe's powerful yet intimate paintings, inviting us to share in the beauty of what she saw in her garden at Lake George.