One of my favorite pictures at Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C. is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Manhattan. Completed in 1932, the painting is in oil and of fairly big size: 84 3/8 x 48 /4. In a brochure from this Museum, it was said that Manhattan is a unique work of art, since it is the only canvas made by O’Keeffe on the theme of New York skyscrapers with blossoms. This painting has an interesting history. Commissioned for the exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers back in 1932, it was considered either destroyed or lost until O’Keeffe’s death. For a long time, it was kept in the painter’s estate and became available only after her death. The painting was a part of O’Keeffe’s triptych, which was known for a long time only in the form of a black-and-white reproduction. Since 1995, the canvas has been displayed in Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Manhattan is a modernist work of art. It features skyscrapers, the sky, the light, and the blossoms. The skyscrapers are painted with a combination of the cubist and futuristic styles. Specifically, the central skyscrapers were painted in a way of the cubist block. At the lower left edge, we see four rather sharp triangular forms. They resemble the lines of the futurist style. Furthermore, another cubist feature is O’Keeffe’s use of triple and double entendres in the painting of the blue wedge which goes along the artwork’s right edge. This solid plane of color is seen as a piece of the sky which covers the block of the tall skyscrapers. Using this approach, the artist marked the boundaries of the skyscrapers with the windows of the dark blue color. These are seen at the top as well as along the building’s side. Light seems to be represented by the central white mass and pink spikes, and painted at the lower edge brown shaft with opaque shade. This representation of the light makes the picture look really dynamic, especially owing to its closeness to the right. The light also helped to show the great height of the skyscrapers in Manhattan. In addition, it needs to be mentioned that the skyscrapers are close to the picture plane and look magnified.
The reason I selected this painting is the combination of skyscrapers and flowers is staggering. Skyscrapers are representative of modern civilization and capitalist culture whereas the flowers are representative of nature. This controversy stuns. The flowers seem to be really from some other world. I think no one expects to see them there. At the same time, these flowers embody humans who live in New York. Tender and delicate, they are as small as people against the concrete and inanimate buildings.
One more reason is the painter’s choice of colors. O’Keeffe clearly pits pink against red, black against white, and mauve against blue. Other colors that I found very fitting are translucent pink (in portrayal of spikes) and opaque brown (along the painting’s lower edge). Besides, the painting stands out by its size. In addition, the painter’s perspective, as working from the higher level rather than from the ground level, is quite intriguing and crates a feeling of heightness.
The painting Manhattan by Georgia O’Keeffe helped me see the artist in another dimension. Earlier I was aware mostly of her flower painting and now opened another important level within O’Keeffe’s creative legacy. It also expanded my knowledge of the modernist art, cubist and futuristic techniques. Apart from it, it evoked the feeling of regret that our city civilization is so much separated from the beauty of the natural world.
- O’Keeffe, Georgia. Manhattan. 1932. Oil, canvas. Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington, D.C. N.d. Web. 4 April 2014.