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Georgia O’Keeffe: How a pink rose got in the horse’s eye
Patti DeNucci painted this picture in high school, inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe.

I love the stories that arrive right after I share that I’m writing a book on Georgia O’Keeffe. One woman recalls in detail the first time she saw an O’Keeffe painting. Another shares that her aunt was named after the painter. And another remembers the story, told in art school, of how the young O’Keeffe put up all her artworks and decided to start over.

Patti DeNucci went one better. She sent me the image of a painting a la O’Keeffe (at left) that she made back in the day. I implored her, “Tell me more!”

“I did this painting in high school art class — likely in my junior or senior year. I was always attracted to the colorful and fluid nature of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and how she contrasted things like long-dead, desert-dried skulls with fresh flowers that would last only a day or two. I also was attracted to how closely she looked at and revealed her subject matter — almost microscopic.  It gave us an entirely new perspective on nature.

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“Even today when I look her images up on Google I see how much she produced and it’s all very beautiful, joyful, and feminine. Some find her work controversial as many of her florals resemble female body parts, but that’s never struck me as odd or risque. Nature creates what works, right?  She just painted and celebrated what she saw and what she found compelling and beautiful.

“And, yes, this is me copying her work, but it’s pretty typical for young art students to copy work of the masters. In college we were expected to do original work, obviously. (I minored in Art, majored in Clothing, Textiles & Design, which most people don’t know.)  My dad (who passed away about eight years ago) was a painter, also. I love that we shared that talent and interest.

“I don’t currently have this painting hanging in my home, but I probably should. Need to find the right place for it. And get it professionally framed.  I also am wanting to get back into painting. I always loved it so much. Guess it’s time!”

As chance would have it, last week at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center I discovered a story that O’Keeffe told an interviewer about the original of Patti’s painting, “Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose” (1931), now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When O’Keeffe was asked about her “Life and Death” painting, she replied:

“Frank Crowninshield [editor] named that one when he reproduced it in Vanity Fair [in 1932]. It was a thing I happened on by chance.

“I had brought the skull home and was working in the house at Lake George. It was laying on the kitchen table; I’d been looking over a collection of calico flowers like the Mexican women use for their hats, weddings, churches, or funerals. Someone knocked at the door. Without thinking, I stuck the pink rose in the horse’s eye because it was convenient, and went to the door. When I returned, there was the pink rose in the horse’s eye – so amusing it seemed it had to be painted.”

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Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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