Cow Skull With Calico Roses

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Georgia O'Keeffe, Cow Skull with Calico Roses, 1931

I stand in Gallery 265 at the Art Institute of Chicago staring at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow Skull with Calico Roses. I had seen O’Keeffe’s work before, the classic, mega-focused flowers, including Blue and Green Music and Oriental Poppies. I had never seen this side of her, though.

After presenting about O’Keeffe for the class I learned about her life in New Mexico and how that greatly influenced her work, which includes many animal skulls from her time in the desert. Paintings like Cow Skull Red, White and Blue and Ram’s Head are right up there with Red Canna and Black Iris III.

While I will always appreciate O’Keeffe’s bold flowers and feminist pieces, Cow Skull with Calico Roses makes me feel more emotion than any rose or iris. I’m not quite sure how to describe the feeling. The cow skull makes me feel hollow like the object itself. The soft cream makes me feel war. The white roses make me feel feminine and bring a sense of purity. The black stripe makes me feel scared as it rips through the middle of the painting. After researching the painting, I found that the flowers were common grave decoration in New Mexico, which affirms my feeling of fear in the black stripe, since I think it is death peaking out from behind the soft cream canvas. Furthermore, the cow skull is another symbol of death, as the O’Keeffe’s subject most likely died in a drought in New Mexico.

While O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz stayed together until his death in 1946, Stieglitz started an affair with Dorothy Norman around 1927 to fill the void of intimacy he lacked in his marriage. Cow Skull with Calico Roses could represent the death of her relationship with Stieglitz. It could also be seen as the “death” of the flowers as her subject matters changed when she spent more time in, and eventually moving to, New Mexico. While her flowers show the life cycle: birth, growth, death, and decay, her skull pieces focus on death and decay.

No matter the reason behind O’Keeffe’s painting, I will always count it as one of my favorite paintings. When I walk into Gallery 265, every other piece of art disappears and I am immediately drawn into the hollow skull and the rich black stripe. O’Keeffe combines beauty and death unlike anybody I have ever seen before.

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