Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Black Iris III and the Flower as Symbol in O’Keeffe’s Painting

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris III is an example of one of her many works on the theme of flowers and particularly the iris, a flower rich with symbolism. In Black Iris III however, O’Keeffe’s aim was not to reference or add to this symbolism but rather to encourage the viewer to look and see the flower and to consider the different ways different people see. Consequently it becomes a profound meditation on the art of looking, not only at art but at life. In this article, Singulart discusses the symbolism projected onto O’Keeffe’s painting as well as her own intentions in creating Black Iris III.  

Who was Georgia O’Keeffe?

O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American artist, known as the Mother of American Modernism. O’Keeffe grew up on a farm near Wisconsin and began her formal artistic training at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1905. From 1908, unable to afford further education, she worked as a commercial illustrator for two years and then taught art until 1918. She continued to study in the summers between 1912 and 1918 and it was during this time that she was introduced to the work of American artist, Arthur Wesley Dow, whose style was based on creating through composition and design rather than simply recreating nature. This encounter with Dow’s work opened up a realm of alternative possibilities to the realism that O’Keeffe had previously been taught. She went on to experiment with her own personal style over the next two years, seeking to find her own personal form of expression. 

In 1915, she made a series of abstract charcoal drawings, making her one of the first American artists to pursue abstraction. She then posted a selection of these abstract drawings to a friend in New York who showed them to the art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. This encounter led to her first exhibition in 1916, organized by Stieglitz. In 1918, with the financial support of Stieglitz, she moved to New York and began to work seriously as an artist. She proceeded to create her iconic abstract works, such as her Red Canna series, which O’Keeffe claimed represent her personal interpretation of flowers but which many critics interpret as abstract representations of female genitalia. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were married in 1924 and they remained in New York until 1929, when O’Keeffe started to spent part of the year in New Mexico, a landscape which had a profound influence on her later work. After Stieglitz’s death she moved permanently to New Mexico where she continued to paint late into her life, until illness and blindness unfortunately prevented her from doing so. O’Keeffe is internationally renowned today for her innovative art which covers a huge range of subject matter, from flowers to bones, cityscapes to landscapes, all of which are essential works of American Modernism. 

The Symbolism of the Iris

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris III, 1926
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris III, 1926 

Georgia O’Keeffe was concerned with the subject of painting irises for many years, in particular the black iris, which was harder to find and only available for a few weeks a year in New York. The iris is a familiar symbol in the western world: in Greek mythology, the goddess Iris personifies the rainbow and the connection between heaven and earth; in Christianity the iris symbolizes the passion of Christ and the resurrection, as well as Mary’s suffering. In turn, Linda Nochlin, the art historian, turned O’Keeffe’s irises into a feminist symbol as she described them as a “morphological metaphor” for the female genitalia, reflecting “the unity of the feminine and the natural order”. Nochlin’s description of Black Iris III and O’Keeffe’s other iris paintings anchored them in the history of art and the history of feminism and feminist art.

However, O’Keeffe rejected this description, stating that: “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they 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. I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” 

Black Iris III

Thus O’Keeffe claimed that in depicting her vision of the iris with Black Iris III, she aimed simply to reveal the overlooked details by enlarging them and forcing the viewer to notice them. In Black Iris III, she focuses on the centre of the iris, which is depicted as a dark black hole enveloped in the folds of the petals which fill the rest of the canvas, from dark purple on the bottom to light purple on the top. There is a fluid, smoky texture to the oil paint, which on this larger-than-life scale of 91.4 x 75.9 cm adds an ethereal, meditative quality to the composition, encouraging the viewer to consider the rhythms of the forms and indeed to discover what they see when they really take the time to see the flower.

See similar artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by Frida Kahlo collection.

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