One of the most famous painters in American art history, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was heavily influenced by the writings of Arthur Wesley Dow and one of his followers, Alon Bement. These art educators believed that the source of art came from personal feelings expressed through formal elements like color, value, and line.

Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) as seen in the wild.

While American art of the early 20th century was evolving — remember that Picasso had unveiled Les Desmoiselles in 1907 and that the center of the art world hadn’t yet shifted from Paris to New York– two groups of American artists began painting real-life subjects:

  • the Ashcan School, which included famous painters like John Sloan (1871 – 1951) and George Bellows (1882 – 1925);  and

Although both experimented with new subject matter like realistic portrayal of American city life, the Precisionists additionally experimented with form.

Right: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit II, 1930.  Oil on canvas, 40″ by 30″. Right.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the most renowned Georgia O’Keeffe paintingsJack-in-the-Pulpit IV.  By this period, O’Keeffe confirmed that her visual inspiration came from the American Southwest.  She wrote from Taos in 1929, “You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here – am finally feeling in the right place again – I feel like myself and I like it”.

In the first of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit series, O’Keeffe presents a precisely detailed painting that looks like a botanist’s rendition.  In successive art paintings she magnifies and abstracts its form until only the “jack”, or stamen, is shown in the sixth and final painting (see below, right).

Left: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV.  Oil on canvas, 1930.  40″ x 30″. Left.

She commented, “I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.” You really can’t, especially in the fourth, the most famous of the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings in this remarkable grouping. It hovers on the edge between figuration and abstraction.  As noted by Fred Kleiner in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages,

“…O’Keeffe reduces the form almost to the limit of the flower’s identity.  It might, at first sight, be something exfoliating on a distant star, or in the cellular world beneath a microscope”.

Georgia O’Keeffe influenced legions of both male and female artists such as Agnes Martin (1912-2004), who was similarly transfixed by the light and color of the American Southwest; Color Field painters such as Morris Louis, and even contemporary artists like Judy Chicago, whose The Dinner Party is a ceremonial banquet, complete with place settings, chalices, and table linens, giving homage to Georgia O’Keeffe and 38 other noteworthy female artists.

Right: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit VI.  Oil on canvas, 1930.  36″ x 18″. 

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit series is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. While not all these O’Keeffee paintings are always on display, even a subset of them is worth any detour to take in O’Keeffe’s magic and imprint on American art history.