Florals for spring? 5 groundbreaking American artists who put beautiful blooms on canvas

Usher in the season with sublime still lifes by Georgia O’Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer and more legendary painters

Mod Amer Art florals

As industrial cities ascended at the turn of the 20th century, many artists turned to still-life painting as an antidote to the period’s rapid modernisation. Eschewing the muted tones of imposing factories and skyscrapers, certain artists relished in nature’s dynamic palette and the timeless beauty of its bountiful blooms.

On 18 April in New York, Christie’s Modern American Art auction will bring together some of the nation’s most revered artists, each of whom brilliantly captured the natural world. From perennial favourites, including Georgia O’Keeffe, to Pacific Northwest mystics, such as Morris Cole Graves, these artists count flowers amongst their beloved subjects. Below, discover five artists’ wide-ranging takes on the floral still life, from the naturalistic to the whimsical.

Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe’s flowers evolved from her passion for the intimate details of the natural environment that she believed many overlooked. She began her flower paintings in 1918, and they were shown for the first time by her dealer and future husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1923. By 1924, her floral subjects had become a sensation in the art world, in part due to their sensual connotations.

The present lot from 1934 is the first of four known works O’Keeffe painted of blue morning glories — whose vibrant blue petals are only open a few hours every morning — between 1934–36. This series was painted after O’Keeffe started regularly visiting New Mexico, a region in which the blue morning glory is perennial. The similarly intimate Blue Morning Glories (1935) is in the collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Florine Stettheimer

The avant-garde artist, feminist, theatrical designer and poet is best known for her paintings of lively scenes featuring animated figures and playful details; however her floral still lifes were of great personal significance to the artist. Tulips Under a Canopy was included in the 1995 exhibition, Florine Stettheimer: Manhattan Fantastica, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Stettheimer would create magnificent floral arrangements when her family entertained and purchased flowers daily from local florists. She painted floral still lifes throughout her life – particularly on every birthday when she gathered and painted a fresh bouquet to celebrate the day. As Stettheimer scholar Barbara Bloemink explains, she called her bouquets “eyegays,” a word she invented to emphasize that her flowers were not for the nose but for the eye–purely for contemplation.

Charles Sheeler

Regarded as one of the United States’ most innovative modernists, Charles Sheeler is, perhaps, most famous for his precisionist images of factories. He was also an accomplished photographer and, at varied moments in his long career, a still-life painter.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Zinnias, 1918. Gouache and pencil on paper. 15 x 10⅛ in (38.1 x 25.7 cm). Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in Modern American Art on 18 April at Christie’s in New York

Describing Sheeler’s early still lifes, the curator Carol Troyan wrote: ‘In the summer of 1918, Sheeler began a group of flower studies of an elementary and traditional type: the tabletop still life. For these he posed a few common blossoms upright in an ordinary vessel, either a low pale porcelain bowl or an unadorned, slender-necked vase’ (Charles Sheeler, Paintings and Drawings, 1987). Consistent with his wider oeuvre, Sheeler contrasted natural and geometric forms in refined compositions to create compelling still lifes with everyday objects.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe

The younger sister of Georgia, Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was a talented artist in her own right. Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1889, Ida O’Keeffe taught drawing at Virginia high schools and elementary schools throughout the 1910s. In 1918 she decided to study nursing, a pursuit that supported her artistic endeavours.

Painting around 70 known canvases in her life, Ida exhibited her work in a variety of venues in the first half of the 20th century. In 1927, her first exhibition was presented at the Opportunity Gallery in New York. Celebrated for her vivid landscapes and naturalistic still lifes, Ida developed a style that explored the line between realism and abstraction.

Morris Cole Graves

Along with Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson, Morris Cole Graves was one of the foremost artists of the Northwest School of modern art in the late 1930s and 1940s. ‘All saw art as a form of spiritual quest. All were influenced by the Northwest’s swirling mix of Native American and Asian traditions’, read the Seattle Art Museum’s description for a 2014 exhibition on these Pacific Northwest mystics.

Morris Cole Graves (1910-2001), Winter Flowers, 1976. Mixed media on paper. 13⅜ x 9⅞ in (34 x 25.1 cm). Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in Modern American Art on 18 April at Christie’s in New York

While the self-taught Graves lived and worked primarily in Western Washington, he travelled extensively around Europe and Asia, before settling on a lakefront property surrounded by redwood forest in Loleta, California, for the last 35 years of his life. At this residence, which he called The Lake, Graves began painting minimalist floral arrangements that exude a meditative, luminous quality. Like many of the aforementioned artists, Graves derived great joy from tending to the flowers and landscape around his home.

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