Winter Is Coming, New Mexico

A gentle squall of snow flurries began to cascade to the ground outside the window to my right as I was preparing to write this blog entry, and I could not help but think about how odd this idea would seem to me before coming to Santa Fe last autumn.  After all, this is the southwestern desert.  It is supposed to always be hot, or at least warmHowever, I quickly learned that an elevation of over seven thousand feet means that Santa Fe and northern New Mexico as a whole indeed have very distinct seasons, and the region has a dramatically different appearance in January than it does in early September.  The winter transforms the high desert of New Mexico’s northern half into a chilly, often gray version of the sunny, arid region it appears as during the summer.  Nonetheless, it still possesses a moving, though more muted, quality of beauty.

After some brief browsing through the Museum’s online collections, I discovered that the beauty of winter in New Mexico was also not lost on Miss O’Keeffe, as she painted numerous scenes that draw inspiration from the effects of the state’s winter climate on the appearance of its landscape.  Just as my previous entry detailed the differing visual qualities of the landscapes surrounding Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú, this entry will demonstrate that the scenery of New Mexico as it appears differently during the summer and winter months inspired Miss O’Keeffe in different, yet equally compelling manners.

One of the most exemplary presentations of Miss O’Keeffe’s interpretation of winter in New Mexico is Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II, 1950, oil on canvas

Completed in 1950, the oil painting depicts a singular tree, free of foliage, in the foreground, with another similar tree standing in the left of the middle ground, and finally, a dense grouping of trees that laterally spans the background of the canvas.  The tree in the foreground possesses some distinctly abstract qualities, such as a two-dimensional appearance and only slight hints of tangible definition, which Miss O’Keeffe provides through a very sparse use of defining lines.  She outlines the tree’s trunk and limbs very sparingly, causing the densely branched limbs to appear almost as curiously shaped banks of gray fog or clouds that are joined by the more darkly rendered central limbs and branches that convey only a very basic and sparse framework for the tree.  The smaller tree in the left of the middle ground is presented similarly, though with an even more indefinite composition due to its distance from the viewer.  The trees that make up the dense group in the background are also abstracted, but they stand at such a distance from the viewer that they collectively appear as little more than an indefinite gray field.

Miss O’Keeffe’s treatment of the scene perfectly captures, and in many ways exaggerates, both the visual elements of and mood that emanates from the landscape of New Mexico in winter.  The subtle palate of the painting reflects the increasingly monochrome appearance of the land in the winter that results from a loss of tree foliage, increased cloud cover, and less direct sunlight.  These factors converge to make the rich colors of the landscape appear pale and also subdue the definition of the area’s physical features by creating much less dramatic shadows than those created by the intense sunlight of the summer.  Miss O’Keeffe’s flat, wispy rendering of the tree fixates on and exaggerates the singularly gray appearance of the bare tree’s bark and consequently communicates the sense of barrenness that pervades the desert in winter.  This draining of color can also be observed in the ground behind the tree, as the earth that Miss O’Keeffe typically portrays in shades of deep red, orange, and brown is defined by pale tones of white and beige, with the former shades only providing slight accents at the edges of the canvas.

The desolate atmosphere of the winter desert exhibited in Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II is brought into even sharper definition when compared with another of Miss O’Keeffe’s trees, namely, the 1943 oil, Dead Pinon Tree. 

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Dead Pinon Tree, 1943, oil on canvas

In this painting, the Pinon is similarly without foliage as the winter tree due to the fact that it is dead.  Despite this, the painting, which focuses mainly on the dead tree in its foreground, exudes far more warmth and liveliness than Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II.  This tone can be attributed to the brighter colors and greater sense of substance injected into the painting through a number of elements.  Most notably, the Pinon appears to be far more grounded in reality, and this is accomplished through an overlapping of many of the branches, which grants the tree a greater sense of three-dimensionality.  Furthermore, the outlines of the trunk and branches are sharply defined, with dark outlines, allowing the viewer to fully separate the tree from the middle ground behind it.  Ultimately, the tree appears as far more tangible and lifelike, and this compliments the warmer, more substantial colors of the ground and hills behind the tree, with the richness of the reddish brown of the earth bursting in the warm, bright light of the summer sun.  Finally, the green vegetation in the background and deep blue sky provide the viewer with even more cues that the painting is depicting a summer scene.

Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II and Dead Pinon Tree capture the opposite appearances and moods of the landscape of New Mexico in the winter and summer months.  The paintings capture the dramatic difference between the seasons, and they do so by demonstrating the manners in which the visual qualities of the scenery at different times of the year inspired Miss O’Keeffe.  Most notably, Winter Trees, Abiquiú, II prompted her to shift her focus away from color by employing a noticeably subdued palate.  This allowed her to exhibit the dreariness of winter by experimenting with abstract dematerialization of line.  Dead Pinon Tree, on the other hand, takes a more realistic approach to rendering lines and shapes, but is more markedly a study in the use of vivid colors to express the vibrancy and warmth of the desert in summer.  Much like Miss O’Keeffe’s paintings from Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú, these seasonal paintings demonstrate how the artist was capable of drawing inspiration from vastly different sources and using it to produce highly original creations.

The comparison of the seasons in the works illustrate that while winter may be considered the “off” season in New Mexico, but there are still plenty of remarkable things to find, if one is willing to look closely enough.

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern 

Feature Photo: Georgia O’Keeffe, View from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu House in Winter, 1964, photographic print

All Images Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum