Grapes No. 2 belongs to a series of fruit and vegetable still lifes that Georgia O’Keeffe painted in the 1920s and is one of only three she painted of grapes. The other two compositions, Grapes on a White Dish with Dark Rim (1920, Private Collection) and Grapes on a White Plate (1927, Private Collection) are more traditional, depicting the grapes on a plate against a static background. Grapes No. 2 depicts the ripe fruit set against a billowing white tablecloth, not unlike the backdrops to some of her most iconic flower subjects, and is noteworthy as the only vertical composition.
Following an intensive period of experimentation with abstract design, O’Keeffe returned to the still life tradition, which she had studied under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League from 1907 to 1908. Chase taught her the basics of still life painting, while also encouraging her to closely observe objects and to experiment with new ways of representing them. O’Keeffe was also highly influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow, whose theories emphasized the importance of simplifying and isolating forms to reveal their essence.
In Grapes No. 2, O’Keeffe has isolated her subject and rendered it in a limited, but richly nuanced palette of whites and purples. The deep, dark hues of the grapes are starkly contrasted by the modulated white background and the grapes, which seem to push forward out of the picture plane, adopt an almost sculptural quality. The resulting composition evokes the medium of photography with its cropped composition and limited palette. Though O’Keeffe denied the direct influence of photography on her art, it is hard not to see the impact of the medium in her enlarged and cropped compositions. Charles C. Eldridge writes, “Sometimes the simple compositions of fruit were treated in near monochromes of a photographic palette…which exploits the pure, clean form of the fruit isolated on a smooth, white cloth.” (Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 62)
O’Keeffe’s large single forms are often linked with the work of photographer Paul Strand, who as early as 1916 photographed bowls and porch shadows isolated from their surroundings. Strand was, along with O’Keeffe, a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s circle and a close friend of the artist. In fact Strand was one of the early owners of Grapes No. 2, inheriting the work from his father Jacob. Another likely source of inspiration for O’Keeffe’s close-up studies of nature were the photo portraits Stieglitz took of her. Often these photos focused on particular close-up views of her body, such as her hands and torso.
Fellow artist Oscar Bluemner wrote of O’Keeffe’s proclivity for subtly modulated colors and working in series, “Color, not of dramatic duachrome contrast, not triads demoting mysterious complex of musician or poet, but single color essentially felt, or at most, scales of related colors; one color to one line, one color and one line to one thought, one thought to one painting, a hundred paintings to a hundred different versions of one idea.” (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, New York, 1991, p. 128) O’Keeffe’s choice of colors is also quite firmly tied to the discipline of exact observation of the natural world.
O’Keeffe’s lifelong fascination with the forms and colors found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from wonderfully sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest objects such as autumn leaves, eggplants and fruits found their way equally into O’Keeffe’s paintings. In 1944, the artist said: “I have picked flowers where I found them--Have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. vi)
Grapes No. 2 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 abstraction. The present work is at once an objective interpretation of grapes, as well as a meditation on form and color. Monumental and intimate at the same time, the work reflects the artist’s dedication to showing the viewer the beauty and wonder in nature.