How Georgia O’Keeffe Made People See

“In a way – nobody sees a flower,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. “Really, it is so small.”

She continued: “We haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Ms. O’Keeffe painted calla lilies, morning glories, purple petunias, jack-in-the-pulpits. She painted them up close and blown up, filled up the whole canvas with them. And she painted over 200.

I have a single-track mind, she told an interviewer. “I work on an idea for a long time. It’s like getting acquainted with a person.”

Blown-up flowers, for her, started in New York. It was early still in the 20th century and huge buildings were growing all over the Manhattan skyline. At this time of big skyscrapers, Ms. O’Keeffe saw small flowers in a still-life by French painter Henri Fantin-Latour.

Beautiful, she thought. But if I make flowers so small, no one will see them. Everyone saw the big New York buildings, she knew. And so her thinking went like this:

“I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big.” Then, she determined, people “will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

And New Yorkers saw. As did Californians, Nebraskans, Parisians, Jakartans. And others. Many, many others. And perhaps they got from her flowers what Ms. O’Keeffe hoped to give them.

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it is your world for a moment. I want to give that world to someone else.”

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