“I hate flowers.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe
She couldn’t have said that — not Georgia O’Keeffe. Here is the artist who painted hundreds of flowers during her lifetime. It was her flower paintings that introduced her to New York City; her flowers that made O’Keeffe among the most famous painters in the world. Even by today’s standards, her flower paintings command critical acclaim from art collectors. In 2014, O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold at Sotheby’s for a record breaking $44.4 million.
O’Keeffe’s images were not the staid flower shoppe variety common of botanical paintings of her time. Instead, critics and fans alike suggested that her flowers expressed the essence of womanhood and depicted female sexual organs. Stieglitz’s marketing savvy saw this as an opportunity for press, and sales. O’Keeffe claimed this was never her intent. Beginning in 1923, when Alfred Stieglitz sold six calla lily images in for $25,000 she began to support herself and him.
Fast forward 94 years. I climb into my tree, grocery store hydrangea in plastic sleeve. Scissors in one pocket, camera in the other. I wear brown cords, military green vest, brown sweater, brown boots, brown hat. Having memorized O’Keeffe’s flower images, I know what I want – to capture a photograph in her style, frame full of flower, nothing to distract.
I am eight feet up. Students walk past. No leaves to conceal me.
I am in plain sight. I hover above the flower, my hands shake.
The photographic feat requires pressing my head against the trunk to free both hands for the shot. I give no thought to falling. I am consumed with a vision. I do not hate this hothouse flower. I think of O’Keeffe and her quote. What would make her hate what she spent so much time capturing?
My research on O’Keeffe and her husband Stieglitz (who she married in 1924) gave me a hint.
Her 29 year relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz was complex, illustrated in hundreds of letters between them and with family and friends. Stieglitz, her senior by 24 years, was a city boy from affluence, a man in love with discourse, a man who thrived on work, on routine, on familiar places. O’Keeffe moved quickly, explored, experienced life sensually.
“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things I had no words for.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe
In 1937, an invitation came from the College of William and Mary to show her work, flowers among them) and receive a Doctorate of Fine Arts degree. Stieglitz resisted. She shows in An American Place, he claimed. She bristled.
Dorothy Norman’s financial support.
I hate flowers.
From GEORGIA and Genevieve–excerpt from a novel
Georgia O’Keeffe sat at her husband’s bedside pretending she didn’t know who’d sent the flowers. They came without a card. Just the arrangement delivered to his hospital room when she’d gone down for a coffee. An informal arrangement. That’s what the florist might call it if he’d placed it in the shop window or ran an advert in the New York Times.
As much as she liked flowers she didn’t like these.
It wasn’t personal. She rose from the wooden chair and went to the window. Scads of arrangements filled the marble sill, the bedside table, the chest of drawers. They’d come filing in once news of Stieglitz’s heart attack got out. Most of the cards had flattering messages and familiar names written in bold type. If he recovered, and the doctors said he would, he’d remember who’d sent what. But this one had no card, no sentiment. Nine white roses, a dozen or so daises and a mess of greenery tucked in between. She’d never found the appeal of such arrangements. If you wanted to send flowers, why not just pick a bunch and send them? Why force them into symmetrical order and call what you’ve done the art of flower arranging? She turned away from the flowers, flashing angry.
Georgia snatched the arrangement from the sill, marched down the hall and entered the first open door she came to. A woman with the hair of a newborn robin raised an empty hand in greeting.
“For you,” said Georgia, striding across the room and setting the glass bowl on the barren sill. “From someone who wishes you well.”
“They’re gorgeous,” said the woman, her eyes brightening. “My niece Eleanor?”
Georgia smiled broadly. “Yes, the very one.”
“How kind of her. How thoughtful. She always was such a dear girl. And considerate. Never missed my birthday. Not once.”
“And she’s remembered you again.”
“Can you stay and visit?”
“I must go.”
“Other flowers to deliver?”
“You’re so kind,” said the woman. “Giving us old folks a spark of daylight. That’s the prettiest arrangement I’ve ever seen. Bring it close,” she said, gesturing to her bedside table. “Where I can admire it.”
Georgia moved the flowers from the sill to the table hoping that was the last time she’d have to touch them. But when the old woman leaned in and smelled the roses, and a tear slid down her deeply lined face, Georgia forgave the flowers for their giver and remembered how much she’d always like roses, especially white ones.