From 1918 to 1934, Georgia O’Keeffe spent part of each summer and fall at Alfred Stieglitz’s family estate along picturesque Lake George in upstate New York. Although she is often associated with her beloved, barren Southwest, O’Keeffe was extremely productive during her time at Lake George, producing about 200 paintings over her years there. In addition to the famous flowers, leaves and landscapes from this period, some of the most strikingly modern and emotionally invested works are her more muted, architectural paintings of the farm buildings on the Stieglitz Lake George property. Minimally composed of subtly gradated color planes, this series of paintings, as epitomized by The Barns, Lake George, acts as an interesting interplay between abstraction and realism. Moreover, when considered in the context of O’Keeffe’s life, the barns become an autobiographical representation of the artist—from her roots in Wisconsin farm country, to her complicated relationship with Stieglitz, to the challenges she faced as a woman against the preconceptions of the male-dominated art world.
O’Keeffe was raised on a dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and her agrarian background perhaps explains why she eagerly participated in the landscaping and farming of the Hill, the Stieglitz’s compound on Lake George, and why the subject of barns resonated so strongly with her. Charles C. Eldredge expounds, “A farm child in the Midwest at the turn of the century would naturally have absorbed the rhythms of the seasons, the patterns of growth and decay, the cycles of planting and harvest; many decades later, in recalling the Wisconsin hay wains of her youth, O’Keeffe showed how enduring were such lessons from her childhood…Many of O’Keeffe’s most familiar motifs—trees and leaves, flowers and fruit, barns, bones, and landscapes—were the products of an American tradition, of a life in the country close to nature.” (Georgia O’Keeffe: American and Modern, Fort Worth, Texas, 1993, p. 192) Indeed, O’Keeffe revisited and painted (Red Barn in Wheatfield) the Wisconsin barns of her youth in 1928 and explicitly connected the barn subject with her formative years in a 1929 letter, writing, “The barn is a very healthy part of me—There should be more of it—It is something that I know too—it is my childhood.” (as quoted in Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, Glen Falls, New York, 2013, pp. 47-48)
At Lake George, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz lived with an ever-changing group of family members and friends in the rustic buildings at the Hill, farming the land and mending the buildings as necessary. In order to find a space for herself to think and work amongst this busy group, in the summer of 1920, O’Keeffe commandeered a small outbuilding on the property, nicknamed the ‘shanty,’ to use as her personal studio. In 1922, this little building would become the inspiration for the first of O’Keeffe’s Lake George barn paintings. Over the next dozen years, she would go on to create fourteen more works inspired by the weathered barns on the Stieglitz grounds, including the present work. Here O’Keeffe captures the aging buildings of the homestead from different angles, juxtaposing the long side of a dark, grey-blue barn with a paint-worn side wall and a pop of red from a smaller building in the left foreground. Each of these structures are reduced to the barest minimum of detail, forming geometric shapes filled with dense color only interrupted by a few small windows, and only tenuously retaining their connection to actual architecture. These strictly rectangular elements are then surrounded by more naturalistic swirls of pale grays, greens and blues forming the moody, cloudy sky and gently rising ground. Describing this view, O’Keeffe recalled, “There was a fine old barn at the Lake George farmhouse. You could see it from the kitchen window or from the window of Stieglitz’s sitting room. With much effort I painted a picture of the front part of the barn. I had never painted anything like that before. After that I painted the side where all the paint was gone with the south wind. It was weathered grey–with one broken pane in the small window.” (as quoted in K. Hoffman, An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O’Keeffe, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984, p. 106)
The emphasis on weather and wear in O’Keeffe’s recollection of these barns is particularly poignant, as the connotations of these terms reflect on the artist’s experience of the place and her time there with Stieglitz. In many ways, Lake George was a collaborative, inspirational setting for the two artists to produce new artwork with each other. Indeed, O’Keeffe posed in the nude for some of Stieglitz’s most sensational photographs there, and the impact of Stieglitz’s photographic method on O’Keeffe’s still lifes from this period cannot be denied. Just as O’Keeffe was captivated by the architecture of the Hill, Stieglitz was also very much inspired by the home farm, and many of his photographs of the land, such as The Barn (1922), similarly play with the angles of the slowly dilapidating buildings seen in The Barns, Lake George. Yet, while the couple found creative motivation together at Lake George, there was also a storm of unrest and distrust brewing between the two, and with Stieglitz’s family, at this time. From apparent infidelity to the overwhelming burdens of daily chores at the farmhouse, several factors created distance between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz during the summers upstate, and “her representations of barns at Lake George are usually interpreted as expressions of her feelings of confinement and isolation.” (E.B. Coe, “’Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” in Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, pp. 47-48)
With its foreboding dark planes, broken windows and dearth of human or even natural life, The Barns, Lake George evokes an eerie feeling akin to the psychological architectural landscapes of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth. Sarah Whitaker Peters writes of a painting almost identical to the present work, Lake George Barns (1926, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota), “There is something crowded and stifling about the three shuttered buildings in Lake George Barns. They deprive the viewer of a sense of distance, and the low gray sky adds to the sense of being completely hemmed in. The only exit offered is through the blue crack in the clouds, suggesting a metaphysical rather than a physical escape. By 1926 O’Keeffe was becoming restless in the close and pretty greenness of upstate New York…O’Keeffe’s barns illustrate the inconvenient truth that Lake George was not her psychic homeland, a fact that even Stieglitz came to accept.” (Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 284)
The unusually dark palette and mood of The Barns, Lake George reflects O’Keeffe’s mixed emotions during her time there, but the classic American subject and more masculine depiction were also very much conscious choices by O’Keeffe to counteract her reputation as a female, and therefore solely feminine, artist. In the early 1920s, O’Keeffe became a sensation in the news, known for the suggestive pictures of her exhibited by Stieglitz and the often even more suggestive interpretations assigned to her abstracted flower images. “They saw her first as a woman and only second, if at all, as an artist.” (S. Greenough, “From the Far Away,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, Washington, D.C., 1987, pp. 136-37) It was therefore no accident that O’Keeffe began to paint more traditional subjects—like the classic American barn so important in the work of her male contemporary Charles Sheeler—and in more representational ways, to try to shed this reputation of sexuality and femininity. In her 1976 autobiography, O’Keeffe “recalled her intentions for painting her brown-sided rustic studio as a response to commentary about her light-colored pictures, stating, ‘The clean, clear colors were in my head, but one day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the Shanty I thought, ‘I can paint one of those dismal colored paintings like the men. I think just for fun I will try—all low-toned and dreary with the tree beside the door.’” (“'Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” p. 47) She felt she could paint a “dirty painting” just as well as the men, and indeed, she could; her earliest Lake George barn picture, The Shanty, would be the first of her paintings purchased by Stieglitz circle patron Duncan Phillips.
With the Lake George barns series, O’Keeffe transcended her identification as a female artist to join the pantheon of American artists who represented the national landscape and its agrarian past with a deep respect and tradition but from a creative modern perspective. Whether a reflection of her childhood on the farm in Wisconsin, her feelings of isolation and need for escape at Lake George, or her ambitions to prove herself as an American artist rather than simply a female one, O’Keeffe’s “fascination with weathered Lake George barns persisted through the decade, their reappearance again suggesting an emotional attachment to the motif. Ultimately, the subject seems more about the artist than the architecture.” (C. Eldredge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 55)