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  • José H. Leal

Georgia O'Keeffe and Shells

I first “found” American painter Georgia O’Keeffe in my teen years and quickly learned to love her paintings, bold images of shells, bones, flowers, and landscapes loaded with personal style, and terrific composition and colors. My “point-of-entry” into O’Keeffe’s artistic universe was “Red Hill and White Shell” on the cover of a book in the art section of a high-end bookstore in Rio de Janeiro. That painting acted like a powerful magnet, pulling me closer to inspect the book in more detail. I suspect that my brain was already trained to automatically look for shells. And naturally this happened not only on the beach, but everywhere I went, which probably helped make that initial connection.

Red Hill and White Shell, Oil on Canvas, 1926

I realized early on that, over the years, O’Keeffe had not only painted several different versions of the rotund shell in “Red Hill and White Shell,” the Northern Moon Snail, Euspira heros, but also many other species from the eastern seaboard of the US, including whelks, conchs, surf clams, and cockles. O’Keeffe had her own stash of shells, the ones she used as models, a small but special collection including those specimens that became immortalized in her fantastic body of work. Despite O’Keeffe’s strong personal touch, a style bordering the abstract, and apparent lack of detail, she was able to capture the “soul” of each species, those features that distinguish one species from its closer relatives.

Slightly Open Clam Shell, Medium Pastel, 1926

The shells in O’Keeffe’s art can be readily identified at the species level by anyone with some basic experience in the subject. Some of them may require an extra dose of expertise: “Slightly Open Clam Shell,” for example, portrays a clam shell in ventral view, showing parts of the internal hinge structure. Although probably difficult to identify by the untrained eye, the combination of shell shape, color, proportions, and, most of all, the presence of an internal ligament along the hinge clearly characterize the shell as a Surf Clam, Spisula solidissima, one of the basic staples in New England clambakes. (The same species appears in other O’Keeffe’s works, including “Clam and Mussel,” from 1926.)

Two Pink Shells, Oil on Canvas, 1937

To see more examples of the magnificent paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and learn more about her productive and unusual career, visit two of the largest collections of her work, the Art Institute of Chicago (where she received part of her formal training) and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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