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Georgia O’Keeffe was 41 when she visited Taos, New Mexico, for the first time in the summer of 1929. She revisited New Mexico in 1930 and every year until 1949, when she settled there. The southwest became the new locus of her art, with which her name will always be linked. Mountain at Bear Lake—Taos was painted at the beginning of that defining shift, when she conceived and produced an extraordinary run of superb paintings, including her famous images of the Ranchos Church (1929–30).

Bear Lake is located in an area north of Taos on Taos Pueblo land. It is a sacred site to the Taos Indians, not accessible to the public. This painting was apparently exhibited only once, at An American Place, the gallery Alfred Stieglitz opened in 1929, and the painting remained in her possession. That O’Keeffe considered it a significant work is indicated by the star that she penciled on the backing board.1

The mountain at Bear Lake that dominates the painting is composed parallel to the picture plane and cropped at the sides, decisions that decrease the appearance of deep space while increasing the static dominance of the mountain. The timeless feeling thus achieved is reinforced by O’Keeffe’s decision to lessen the three-dimensionality of the mountain by eliminating smaller geological details and limiting modeling to a few carefully chosen features, such as the irregular folds of mountain walls in the right half of the painting. The startling colors of New Mexico deeply impressed O’Keeffe. Here the rich purple mountainside, accented with gray patches, is seen in shifting half lights.

The lake is presented as a dense black band at the bottom of the canvas, modulated only by three undulating purple shapes that signify waves but do not create motion, and a thin blade of pure white slicing between lake and mountain like the brilliant reflection of sun on the water. The glowing purplish-pink sky and the shadow-black lake may suggest the end of afternoon with the sun beyond the mountains, but the blade of light on the water is more equivocal. It would be unwise to insist on literalness in an artist who habitually avoided transitory effects of time and weather.

Often O’Keeffe’s painted surfaces appear smooth (especially in reproduction), yet there is subtle brushwork that both textures and structures the image. The brushwork in the mountain in the Mountain at Bear Lake—Taos is an example. One finds that she often painted in short blocks of diagonal strokes that follow the mountain slopes and suggest the structure of its surface, its geological shifts, while enhancing the dynamic unity of the painting.

The paradox of Georgia O’Keeffe’s pictures, it has often been noted, is that they may be simultaneously realistic and abstract. In the context of the White House art collection, it is the abstraction of Bear Lake, New Mexico that attracts attention. It is by no means the most recent American painting in the collection, nor the only one by a distinctively “modern” artist: compare John Marin’s The Circus No. 1 (1952). But the initial location of the O’Keeffe in the Green Room* draws attention to its modernity. Additionally, the artist framed her picture unobtrusively with a strip of metal—an 18th- or 19th-century period frame would be as inappropriate as a metal strip would be on a 19th-century landscape painting. It is obvious that O’Keeffe considered the strip an integral part of the painting, not to be hidden, when one sees that she stained or patinated the metal a darker color from precisely the point where the dark mountain begins, in order to harmonize with the painting.

The painting has therefore attracted public comment, as was expected, and the discussion will continue. But it may be observed that in its color as in its evocation of the tranquil grandeur of a treasured part of the American landscape, Mountain at Bear Lake—Taos is in perfect harmony with the decoration of the Green Room. It honorably continues a central tradition of our art—celebrating the natural beauty of the American continent.

*Mountain at Bear Lake - Taos was displayed in the Green Room at the White House from 1997-2004, when it was moved to ts current location in the Library.

Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 262. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.

1 Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), I: p. 454, cat. 744; p. 455, cat. 745; p. 483, cat. 791; II: p. 1106, cat. 99 (see also p. 1122, fig. 45, installation photograph).

Details

  • Title: Mountain at Bear Lake - Taos
  • Date Created: 1930
  • Provenance: Artist's estate; The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1986; acquired by the White House under the title BEAR LAKE, NEW MEXICO.
  • Physical Dimensions: w1016 x h762 mm (without frame)
  • Description: Signed in pencil on backing board: OK [in star]
  • Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and William D. Rollnick and Nancy Ellison Rollnick, 1997. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, White House Historical Association (White House Collection)
  • Medium: Oil on canvas

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