Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe
Meaning and Interpretation of Iconic American Painting

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Cows's Skull: Red,White,Blue
By Georgia O'Keeffe.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931)


Explanation of other 20th Century Paintings


Name: Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931)
Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement/Style: Modern art
Location: Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by American artists like
Georgia O'Keeffe, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Student's League in New York, where she won the William Merritt Chase prize for oil painting, Georgia O'Keeffe explored the emerging trend of Precisionism, developed her own unique style of still life painting, involving flower enlargements, and went on to become one of the most versatile and innovative 20th century painters in America. At the age of 29 she married her principal supporter - the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) - with whom she lived in an apartment on the 30th-floor of the Shelton Hotel in New York. Then in 1928 she visited New Mexico and was amazed by its natural environment, which she saw as providing a valuable commentary on American art and life. In fact, Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue was her submission for what image could best symbolize the American identity. Rather than championing the landscape and towns - the approach of movements like Regionalism and American Scene painting - she painted a weather-beaten cow's skull to represent the true spirit of America. (See also O'Keeffe's Black Abstraction, 1927.)

In 1929, during her second visit to Nex Mexico, O'Keeffe spent the summer at Taos. The brightness of the southern light lent a remarkable clarity to the desert landscape, revealing its forms with a directness that was in sympathy with the artist's own aesthetic. In New Mexico "half your work is done for you", she remarked. The motifs O'Keeffe found at Taos - the desert flowers, the red hills of the bad lands, the crosses and the bones - gave her a new series of emblems and brought to her work a mythical tone it did not have before. Her artistic focus quickly shifted from the urban skyscrapers of New York to the ancient, natural environment of New Mexico.

Note: For another of America's modern artists who was associated with New Mexico, see the minimalist Agnes Martin (1912-2004).

The many bones littering the area were a source of particular fascination for O'Keeffe and served as the subject for a number of her paintings; Cow's skull: Red, White, and Blue is one of the earliest. In the catalogue to an exhibition of her works in 1939, the artist wrote: "To me, bones are as beautiful as anything I know. They are strangely more living than the animals walking around. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive in the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable."

O'Keeffe began collecting bones during her first summer in New Mexico. At the end of her second visit in 1930, she shipped a barrel of bones back to Lake George, New York, where Cow's skull: Red, White, and Blue was painted.

Out of context, the skull in this painting assumes a monumentality and iconic significance. The central black stripe against the horizontal spread of the horns has religious connotations and recalls the wooden crosses of the New Mexico desert, which O'Keeffe also painted. The upper part of the skull is smooth and flat, while the bottom is made up of ragged pinnacles and hollows, as if the bone had been carved away by the same elemental forces that shaped the rugged New Mexican landscape. The red verticals contrast with the bleached bone in its cool blue surround. Diagonal modulations in this blue painted area animate the static image with folds reminiscent of a weathered valley or draped cloth.

Red, white and blue, the colours of the American flag, feature prominently in the painting. Giving her reasons for this patriotic display, O'Keeffe wrote: "As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel - The Great American Play - The Great American Poetry. I am not sure that they aspired to the Great American Painting. So as I painted on my cow's skull on blue I thought to myself, make it an American Painting. They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides - Red, White and Blue - but they will notice it."

In 1949 O'Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico, where she lived until her death in 1986.

Explanation of other 20th Century American Paintings

Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929) by Edward Hopper.
Coastal landscape from the master of 'silent paintings'.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood.
Monumental portrait of Midwest farming couple.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) by Grant Wood.
Iconic American image.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.
Urban genre painting just like a movie-still.

Seated Woman (1944) by Willem de Kooning.
The Beginning (triptych) (1949) by Max Beckmann.


• For the meaning of other 20th century icons, see: Homepage.

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