The Allure of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai‘i Paintings

“Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1,” 1939. All artworks courtesy of New York Botanical Garden.

Nearly 80 years ago, artist Georgia O’Keeffe produced paintings inspired by the Hawaiian Islands, displaying her masterful ability to capture the spirit of her environment and make herself at home anywhere in the world.

“One sees new things rapidly everywhere when everything seems new and different,” wrote American painter Georgia O’Keeffe in the statement for her exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place in New York City in 1940. At the gallery, widely considered the hub of avant-garde American art, guests anticipated the artist’s familiar iterations of austere Southwestern themes and city skylines. Instead they discovered an oeuvre of a different kind, one flush with exotic flora and vivid island landscapes from O’Keeffe’s nine-week sojourn in Hawai‘i the previous winter.

In 1939, the highly influential Modernist painter had accepted a proposal from the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later known as Dole Food Company) to visit the Hawaiian Islands and produce two paintings for its national magazine advertising campaign.

Commissioning established artists was a vogue marketing strategy in the 1930s: Fine art elevated products.

Dole hoped O’Keeffe would capture the romance and allure of the islands—and therefore its pineapples—in her sumptuous imagery. For the famed artist, the invitation was a boon. O’Keeffe’s latest exhibits had received lukewarm reviews, with critics hinting that her work was stale and tiresome.

Though O’Keeffe was reputed for being unmoved by such opinions, Dole’s offer may have served as a serendipitous opportunity for her to refresh and reset, both professionally and personally.

Setting sail across the Pacific Ocean aboard the S.S. Lurline, 51-year-old O’Keeffe found warm welcome in the islands. Her arrival was celebrated in the local news, but subsequent public details of her activities remained scarce.

Notoriously private and independent in equal measure, O’Keeffe eschewed social events in favor of a schedule that suited her personality—unfettered and unencumbered, and therefore free for painting.

“Hibiscus with Plumeria,” 1939.

Over the course of two months, O’Keeffe traveled throughout O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i Island, where she found new, lush expression in tropical landscapes and exotic flora.

She marveled at O‘ahu’s pineapple fields, which she described as “all sharp and silvery stretching for miles off to the beautiful mountains,” and found heady inspiration along the Hāna coast, where “the lava washes into such sharp and fantastic shapes.”

O’Keeffe is so often associated with New Mexico and the Southwest that to imagine her in a different place is strange.

Theresa Papanikolas, curator

Loaned a private car on Maui, she found prodigious opportunities for exploration and solitude, and she roamed and painted at will.

Through her signature use of form and color, O’Keeffe captured the resplendent drama of all that she encountered: the verdant, deep clefts and surrounding waterfalls of ‘Īao Valley; craggy lava outcroppings amidst a textured ocean; the sensuous, vermillion curves of heliconia against a twin backdrop of sea and sky.

The artist produced 20 paintings from her trip to the islands. Showcased at An American Place gallery the following year, they garnered critical acclaim for their freshness, excitement, and beauty.

Henry McBride, a critic for the New York Sun, commented, “The landscapes, flower pieces and marines in this collection all testify to Miss O’Keeffe’s ability to make herself at home anywhere.”

Nearly 80 years later, 17 of these works were reunited at the New York Botanical Garden for an exhibit entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i, held May 19 through October 28, 2018.

Theresa Papanikolas, the former curator of European and American art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, also curated the New York exhibit. Papanikolas, long a fan of O’Keeffe’s works, is delighted that the Honolulu Museum of Art is home to five of O’Keeffe’s Hawai‘i paintings.

“O’Keeffe is so often associated with New Mexico and the Southwest that to imagine her in a different place is strange,” notes Papanikolas about the surprise and then intrigue that many viewers experience upon learning of O’Keeffe’s little-known time in Hawai‘i. “It’s hard to picture Georgia O’Keeffe, this ‘Priestess of the Desert,’ being in the islands.”

But the artist’s keen ability to distill nature’s potent beauty regardless of geographic location was testimony to her lifelong desire to capture the spirit of her surroundings.

“She loved Hawai‘i and always had hoped to come back,” Papanikolas says. “Critics reviewed her Hawai‘i work quite favorably, but what the critics really responded to was her response to Hawai‘i as a place.”

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