An Introduction to the Painting That Changed Georgia O’Keeffe’s Career: Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills

Pub­lic recog­ni­tion is an all too rare reward for many artists, but it car­ries with it a risk of being wide­ly mis­un­der­stood.

Geor­gia O’Ke­effe gained renown for her large-scale flower paint­ings in the 1920s, sell­ing six images of calla lilies for $25,000.

Her hus­band Alfred Stieglitz, an influ­en­tial pho­tog­ra­ph­er and gallery own­er 24 years her senior, cre­at­ed a sen­sa­tion when he exhib­it­ed these flo­ral images along­side his sen­su­ous nude por­traits of her, foment­ing an erot­ic asso­ci­a­tion that has been near impos­si­ble to shake.

O’Keefe main­tained that the close-up flower views were abstrac­tions, sim­i­lar in spir­it to the mod­ernist pho­tographs of her hus­band’s con­tem­po­raries Edward West­on and Paul Strand, but as art his­to­ri­an Ran­dall C. Grif­fin points out, Stieglitz was inclined to see things dif­fer­ent­ly.

Stieglitz and his cir­cle belonged to a tra­di­tion that used themes of sex­u­al­i­ty in their art as a dec­la­ra­tion of being avant-garde. Stieglitz read vir­tu­al­ly all of Freud’s books, as well as Have­lock Ellis’s six-vol­ume Stud­ies in the Psy­chol­o­gy of Sex, which argues that art is dri­ven by sex­u­al ener­gy. Thus, for Stieglitz, sex was a lib­er­at­ing source of cre­ativ­i­ty. O’Keeffe may or may not have thought of Freud when she paint­ed her flow­ers, but the psychologist’s writ­ings were a cul­tur­al touch­stone at the time, with his ideas wide­ly known in a sim­pli­fied fash­ion.

Cura­tor James Payne, cre­ator of the Great Art Explained web series, brings this con­text to his exam­i­na­tion of O’Keeffe’s 1935 paint­ing Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills.

By the time she began work on it, O’Keeffe had forged a deep, spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion to the New Mex­i­can desert. Its alien land­scape offered respite from Stieglitz’s extra-mar­i­tal affairs and the men­tal health issues that had plagued her in New York.

The South­west pro­vid­ed abun­dant fresh sub­ject mat­ter. She drove her Ford Mod­el A for miles across the desert, stop­ping to col­lect the bleached bones of ani­mals who had per­ished under drought con­di­tions. Unlike Farm Secu­ri­ty Agency pho­tog­ra­phers such as Arthur Roth­stein, O’Keeffe was not inter­est­ed in using these bones to doc­u­ment the cat­a­stro­phe of the Dust Bowl, or even to med­i­tate on mor­tal­i­ty:

The bones do not sym­bol­ize death to me. They are shapes that I enjoy. It nev­er occurs to me that they have any­thing to do with death. They’re very lively.…They please me, and I have enjoyed them very much in rela­tion to the sky.


Cow’s Skull with Cal­i­co Ros­es is a love­ly still life, a study in white. The same skull shows up trans­posed (in Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue) against a red, white, and blue back­ground.

“I’ll tell you what went on in my so-called mind when I did my paint­ings of ani­mal skulls” she told the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins in a 1974 inter­view:

There was a lot of talk in New York then—during the late twen­ties and ear­ly thirties—about the Great Amer­i­can Paint­ing. It was like the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el. Peo­ple want­ed to ‘do’ the Amer­i­can scene. I had gone back and forth across the coun­try sev­er­al times by then, and some of the cur­rent ideas about the Amer­i­can scene struck me as pret­ty ridicu­lous. To them, the Amer­i­can scene was a dilap­i­dat­ed house with a bro­ken-down buck­board out front and a horse that looked like a skele­ton. I knew Amer­i­ca was very rich, very lush. Well, I start­ed paint­ing my skulls about this time. First, I put a horse’s skull against a blue-cloth back­ground, and then I used a cow’s skull. I had lived in the cat­tle country—Amarillo was the cross­roads of cat­tle ship­ping, and you could see the cat­tle com­ing in across the range for days at a time. For good­ness’ sake, I thought, the peo­ple who talk about the Amer­i­can scene don’t know any­thing about it. So, in a way, that cow’s skull was my joke on the Amer­i­can scene, and it gave me plea­sure to make it in red, white, and blue.

Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills presents a more nuanced vision than Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, and rep­re­sents a turn­ing point in O’Ke­ef­fe’s art.

As Payne observes, the dark clouds gath­ered above the red hills vis­i­ble from her desert ranch promise a much longed-for rain.

The hol­ly­hock she plucked from her gar­den is a sym­bol of rebirth and fer­til­i­ty.

Their float­ing place­ment has drawn com­par­isons to Sur­re­al­ism, but O’Keefe assert­ed that the com­po­si­tion “just sort of grew togeth­er”, telling art his­to­ri­an Kather­ine Kuh, “I was in the sur­re­al­ist show when I’d nev­er heard of sur­re­al­ism. I’m not a join­er.”

Ram’s Head, White Hol­ly­hock-Hills met with acclaim when it was shown at Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in 1936. The New York­er hailed it as one of O’Keeffe’s most bril­liant paint­ings in form and exe­cu­tion, and Stieglitz’s friend, painter Mars­den Hart­ley, might well have intu­it­ed some­thing about the direc­tion O’Keeffe was head­ing in when he described the image as “a trans­fig­u­ra­tion:”

…as if the bone, divest­ed of its phys­i­cal usages—had sud­den­ly learned of its own eso­teric sig­nif­i­cance, had dis­cov­ered the mean­ing of its own inte­gra­tion through the process­es of dis­in­te­gra­tion, ascend­ing to the sphere of its own real­i­ty, in the pres­ence of skies that are not trou­bled, being accus­tomed to supe­ri­or spectacles—and of hills that are ready to receive.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Explore 1,100 Works of Art by Geor­gia O’Keeffe: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free to View Online

The Real Geor­gia O’Keeffe: The Artist Reveals Her­self in Vin­tage Doc­u­men­tary Clips

Geor­gia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art, a Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Painter Nar­rat­ed by Gene Hack­man

How Geor­gia O’Keeffe Became Geor­gia O’Keeffe: An Ani­mat­ed Video Tells the Sto­ry

Browse Paint­ings, Pho­tos, Papers & More in the Archive of Alfred Stieglitz and Geor­gia O’Keeffe, America’s Orig­i­nal Art Pow­er Cou­ple

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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