During the 1920s Georgia O'Keeffe began painting magnified images of flowers and leaves. These subjects enabled O'Keeffe to concentrate on color and form. As 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." (R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 278) By applying the Modernist aesthetics to natural forms, O'Keeffe drew the viewer's attention to their often unappreciated beauty. The present painting, The Red Maple at Lake George, painted in 1926, characterizes her work of this period with its simplified abstraction and vibrant color.
Much of O'Keeffe's inspiration came from Lake George, where the artist spent time with her husband Alfred Stieglitz during the summer and autumn months. As Charles Eldredge notes, "Alfred Stieglitz, like many urbanites then and now, also had a rural base, at Lake George in upstate New York, and every year he joined other members of the large family at his mother's home there. In August 1918, he was accompanied by O'Keeffe, who was warmly received by the mater familias and the sundry siblings, in-laws, and offspring of the Stieglitz tribe." (Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 39) Soon O'Keeffe began to take frequent sojourns to the region, where she began a diverse series of paintings related to the lake and her impressions of the surrounding natural landscape.
While O'Keeffe 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) In a letter to Mitchell Kennerley dated January 1929 O'Keeffe wrote, "I want to tell you about the paintings too--. First the yellow one--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--so I came back with my hickory leaf and daisy--" (Georgia O'Keeffe Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 187) With its fiery hues of reds, The Red Maple at Lake George, clearly exemplifies O'Keeffe's passion for this time of year.
In addition to Lake George, it is also possible that Henry David Thoreau's Walden inspired O'Keeffe's choice of leaves as a subject. In 1854 Thoreau wrote, "No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly...The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype...The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves...The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth...Is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?...The earth is...but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,--not a fossil earth but a living earth" (as quoted in S.W. Peters, Becoming O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 264). It seems likely that O'Keeffe was familiar with this passage, as the leaves in The Red Maple at Lake George appears to take on a conceptual life similar to that which Thoreau describes.
The Red Maple at Lake George 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 Red Maple at Lake George demonstrates O'Keeffe's ability to balance seemingly opposite forces, separating the tree from its natural environment and concentrating on form and color. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities, which O'Keeffe associated with her organic subjects and which are the source of their strength. Lines dissect the work as they emanate from the lower center to the edges of the canvas, twisting and curling. With the vibrant reds and smoky grays, O'Keeffe transforms the maple leaves into tongues of fire. Many scholars have remarked on O'Keeffe's creative, aesthetic, and artistic affinity for the reds that she used throughout her career. This brilliant use of shading and color can be seen in The Red Maple at Lake George. O'Keeffe uses varying shades of red and blends the hues into deep blacks and steely grays.
In the 1920s, with these works of Lake George, her flower paintings and her views of Manhattan, O'Keeffe began to achieve a measure of acclaim. In 1926, the journalist Blanche Matthias wrote a celebratory biographical account of O'Keeffe's success. For Matthias, O'Keeffe embodied a feminist ideal, "She is like the flickering flame of a candle, steady, serene, softly brilliant...this woman who lives fearlessly, reasons logically, who is modest, unassertive, and spiritually beautiful, and who, because she dares paint as she feels, has become not only one of the most magical artists of our time, but one of the most stimulatingly powerful." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, p. 294) The Red Maple at Lake George embodies O'Keeffe's forceful paintings of enlarged natural forms and at the same time highlighting the tree's vibrant and beautiful vermillion hues.