A keen observer of nature in its various forms, Georgia O’Keeffe found importance, both pictorial and mystical, in the organic objects she found littered in the desert, seeing them as symbols of the Southwest. Indeed, “At Ghost Ranch in the summer of 1937, O’Keeffe daily walked out into the high desert and collected bones much as others gather shells at the seaside” (E.H. Turner, “The Real Meaning of Things,” Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., p. 19). In Horn and Feather from the same year, O’Keeffe isolates and elevates two such found natural objects, utilizing Modernist technique to create an emblematic still-life portrait of the New Mexico landscape she considered her spiritual home.
After her initial visit to the region in 1929, O’Keeffe made almost annual trips to New Mexico, painting in relative solitude for up to six months, then returning to New York each winter to exhibit her new works at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. Just as she would collect flowers, leaves and other natural elements during her visits to Lake George, New York, she began to also collect vestiges of the Western landscape: stones, bones, skulls and horns worn by wind and water. O’Keeffe would also gather feathers found on her desert wanderings, often enclosing them in letters back East to Stieglitz. Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier writes, “O’Keeffe’s interest in shapes first led her to notice the animal bones scattered across the New Mexico landscape and decide that they had something to say about the terrain. She began collecting them, and when she returned East, she brought back a barrel of bones. This became a standard procedure during the years that she traveled between New Mexico and New York. In August 1931, writing to Rebecca Salsbury James from Lake George, O’Keeffe says, ‘I have been working on the trash I brought along--my bones cause much comment’” (M. P. Balge-Crozier, “Still Life Redefined,” Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 62).
For O’Keeffe, the bones, horns and feathers became avatars of the New Mexico landscape with which she had become so enthralled, and symbolized many things to her--not only the cycles of life and death, but also the important role animals played in the history of the West. In many ways, her investigations of these found objects became her contribution to the tradition begun by nineteenth-century painters, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, in preserving the unique, mysterious and spiritual character of the Old West. Moreover, her Western still-life paintings express her own emotional reaction to this storied landscape. Charles C. Eldridge explains, “the bones were mementos of experience. They could convey ideas, could speak to and for O’Keeffe. Painting them was, she explained, ‘my way of saying something about this country which I feel I can say better that way than in trying to reproduce a piece of it. It’s a country that’s very exciting…How can you put down an equivalent of that kind of a world?’” (C. Eldridge, Eloquent Objects: Georgia O’Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico, exhibition catalogue, Memphis, 2014, p. 39).
In the present work, Horn and Feather, O’Keeffe utilizes subtly modulated white, beige and gray pigments to capture the contrasting tones and textures of the horn and feather. Omitting extraneous detail, she focuses on the interrelation of the forms of her subject, juxtaposing the soft, undefined edges of the downy parts of the feather with the more austere, curvilinear outlines of the horn and quill. The combination of the feminine feather with the masculine horn relates the composition to the artist’s famous skull and flower paintings. Depicted on a field of white, with only a soft gray shadow placing the still life within a larger environment, the organic forms almost, as Eldridge has written, “materialize like an apparition against the indeterminate blank background” (ibid., p. 42). The stark setting allows the objects to seemingly push forward out of the picture plane and adopt an almost sculptural quality, while the limited palette and focused isolation of the subject evoke the medium of photography.
Upon its exhibition at An American Place in December 1937, Horn and Feather was included under the headline “Small Works Most Telling” in the New York Times review declaring, “O’Keeffe’s current showing contains some of the best work of her career…there seems, again and again conveyed, a note of real freshness and, in the treatment of subjects long identified with her brush, vigor of conception and execution that results from powerful forms” (E.A. Jewell, “Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibits Her Art,” New York Times, December 28, 1937). Early the following year, a Life magazine article proclaimed, “O’Keeffe’s magnificent sense of composition and subtle gradations of color on such ordinarily simple subjects as leaves and bones have made her the best-known woman painter in America today” (“Georgia O’Keeffe Turns Dead Bones To Live Art,” Life, February 14, 1938). Monumental and intimate at the same time, Horn and Feather epitomizes this acclaimed approach to still life and poignantly reflects O’Keeffe’s own wonder at the beauty of nature.