Around the World from Above

As I move through the archival materials related to O’Keeffe’s 1959 “Around the World” trip, I find myself stopping more often to look at a couple O’Keeffe paintings currently hanging in the Research Center library reading room. Blue – A, 1959 and Blue Black and Grey, 1960 are part of a major series of works of earth and river forms seen from the air, which her travels around the world inspired.

“I once spent three and a half months flying around the world. I was surprised that there were so many desert areas with large riverbeds running through them. I made many drawings about one and a half inches square of the rivers seen from the air. At home I made larger charcoal drawings. The color used for the paintings had little to do with what I had seen – the color grew as I painted.”

Examples of the small line drawings below are followed by one the more developed charcoal drawings.

O’Keeffe writes to her sister, Anita O’Keeffe Young, while traveling. Just as she sketches from above, sometimes she writes while flying and describes what she sees out her window. One of my favorite letters is about two months into her travels when O’Keeffe is in flight from Tehran. She describes what she sees out the window – tries to break a couple of times to write about her experiences in Tehran but then quickly goes back to writing about what she is observing out the window. There’s a certain excitement to the letter.

“Such things as I have seen out this window I have never dreamed – tho it is more like my dreams than anything I have ever seen – a great river system of green and grey seeming to run up hill to a most dream like lake of bluish and pinkish grey all in the softest most chiffon like colors  – then great areas of sand in soft dark wave like shapes – then a few small patches of green – all sorts of queer [mottled] shapes with a long line of road stretching across it into the sky – I really can’t tell of it but it makes me believe in my dreams more than I ever have … Now there is a white road that runs right into a [vast] rough rock sharp and [illegible] mountains – a small city with some green at the foot – and a green valley like a river twisting up into it – a lot of very sharp mountains – snow on the top on beyond – two more patches of green – small ones – we seem to be going through a pass almost touching those wicked looking sharp peaks – and we come out into a valley almost as wicked looking  – dry but for a few irregular small grey spots – and we go on into more less sharp looking bare mountains”

She continues on – clearly captivated by what she sees from above. Below are a few of her developed oil paintings from 1959 and 1960. While O’Keeffe states that the color used for the paintings had little to do with what she had seen, we can tell from her writing and multiple letters that she was very aware and fascinated by the colors, shapes, and natural beauty surrounding her.

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Liz Ehrnst, Archives and Digital Collections Librarian