Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue [Georgia O'Keeffe]

Emily Browne


This painting stands as proof that Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t beat around the bush.

She got straight to the point and the point here is that America isn’t all lush green foliage and blushing babies. It’s not the Norman Rockwell picture of perfection and it’s certainly not all urban landscapes and city folk as Edward Hopper seemed to suggest. In fact, parts of it are dark, dead and barren and this painting is Georgia O’Keeffe just telling it like it is. Respect.

Although this painting is now a symbol of the true American West, it was created as kind of a joke. Around the time that it was painted, artists, musicians and poets were hell-bent on creating the “Great American scene” (or poem or song or what have you). Creativity was all about ‘Murica and ‘Muricans (whatever that means). But Georgia O’Keeffe, having traveled across the country more times than any other artist at the time, stated, “some of the current ideas about the American scene struck me as pretty ridiculous…. For goodness’ sake, I thought, the people who talk about the American scene don’t know anything about it.” So what did Georgia O’Keeffe do? She painted a skull with a red, white and blue background as a subtle flip-off to those artists who had no clue what America was really about. So it wasn’t a huge LOL, more of a “you had to be there” moment...but you could say that all the other Great American scenes were boned by the genius of Georgia O’Keeffe. 

Speaking of which, O’Keeffe was obsessed with bones to the point that she mailed a shipment of desert bones to herself in New York so she could continue her streak of morbid brilliance. She was even quoted saying, “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.” It’s tough to tell whether O’Keeffe was on to something or just on something, but either way, she was the mother of American Modernism.