Depicting America: “Summer Days,” 1936 by Georgia O’Keeffe

By Mia Diamond PZ ’25

Georgia O’Keeffe. Summer Days, 1936. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 × 30 1/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Calvin Klein, 94.171. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. O’Keeffe, Georgia

*Originally Written for “Art of The United States” Course

Georgia O’Keeffe created the oil painting “Summer Days” in 1936. Dominating the canvas is a large, sun-bleached animal skull. Its bone-white color strikingly contrasts the background, a bright blue sky speckled with clouds. The animal skull is juxtaposed by large, vibrant wildflowers. The flowers dwarf the landscape below and compete with the skull for attention. The muted desert below, characterized by gentle, rolling hills, stretches endlessly towards the horizon. “Summer Days” captures a serene moment that one might experience during a moment of solitary reflection in nature and invites the observer to contemplate the intertwined dance of life and death.

In the 1930s, New Mexico grappled with the economic repercussions of the Great Depression and the environmental challenges of drought. However, despite these adversities, it was a period of significant cultural revival and artistic flourishing for the state. New Deal programs provided crucial employment and infrastructure improvements while also sponsoring projects that celebrated and documented the rich cultural tapestry of New Mexico, encompassing its Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo heritages. Towns like Santa Fe and Taos emerged as artistic havens, attracting luminaries who sought to encapsulate the unique essence of New Mexican landscapes and cultures in their work. New Mexico also witnessed notable Indigenous activism, with the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo marking a significant victory for Native American rights. As O’Keeffe painted “Summer Days,” she was immersed in a state undergoing both challenge and change.

“Summer Days” appeals to many different audiences. It appealed to fans of the American regionalism movement, which was prominent in the 1930s, due to its distinctive style that captures the nuances of the American Southwest so vibrantly. During the Great Depression, many Americans turned to art as a beacon of hope. O’Keeffe’s painting, with its grounding depiction of the American landscape, offered a sense of stability and familiarity amidst the prevailing uncertainty. Within the artist community, the painting was hailed as a masterful representation, further cementing O’Keeffe’s reputation as a visionary of American modernism and offering a compelling interpretation of the Southwest that influenced subsequent generations of artists. 

O’Keeffe has attracted admiration not only from the art community but also from prominent figures in other industries, most notably the iconic fashion designer Calvin Klein. Klein’s fascination with O’Keeffe’s work was profound, so much so that he had photographs of the artist in his bedroom. He was the original owner of “Summer Days” and is the reason it is now part of The Whitney’s permanent collection. In an interview with the New York Times, Klein encapsulated the profound allure of O’Keeffe’s artwork in a single sentence: “She has pared down, simplified, gotten to the essence.” Just as Klein was celebrated for his minimalist approach to fashion, he recognized a kindred spirit in O’Keeffe’s ability to distill a subject to its purest form. O’Keeffe’s mastery lies in her skill to omit the superfluous and accentuate the fundamental, bringing forth the raw, intrinsic beauty of her subjects. This “essence” that Klein refers to is not merely about visual simplicity; it’s a representation of the artist’s perspective of seeing the world stripped of its noise, distractions, and complexities. 

The painting is symbolic of the spirit and essence of the American Southwest. Through its stark depiction of a sun-bleached skull floating above a vibrant desert landscape with fiery wildflowers, the painting captures the dichotomy of life and death, resilience and vulnerability, that characterizes the arid yet bountiful expanses of New Mexico. The skull, while a symbol of mortality, also stands as a testament to the enduring nature of life in the harsh desert terrain — a life that has experienced and survived a land that some believe to be inhabitable. The wildflowers, bursting with color and vibrancy, serve as a testament to nature’s unyielding will to thrive against all odds. The expansive sky and muted desert hues juxtaposed with these vibrant wildflowers represent the boundless potential and enduring spirit of the American frontier.

Through a different lens, O’Keeffe’s painting could be seen as challenging traditional narratives of the American West. Rather than depicting cowboys, settlers, or dynamic scenes of conquest and expansion, O’Keeffe chooses to represent a silent, still moment in the desert. The absence of human presence and the emphasis on the natural environment resists the anthropogenic and often violent tales of American manifest destiny. Instead, the painting emphasizes reverence for the land and nature, suggesting that true understanding and appreciation of America come not from dominion and expansion but from quiet observation and connection to its diverse landscapes.

In the vast tapestry of American art, Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Summer Days” stands as a poignant testament to the complexities and beauty of the American Southwest. The painting delves deep into themes of life, death, resilience, and the profound connection between humanity and nature. Its narrative not only reinforces the inherent beauty and mystique of the American landscape but also pushes viewers to introspect on the broader narrative of the American experience. Amidst the rolling dunes and blazing wildflowers, the artwork invites an exploration of our relationship with the land and challenges traditional notions of what it means to be truly American. 

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