Hard to believe, but 20 years ago the White House permanent art collection included no women.
In 1997 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton convinced the Committee for the Preservation of the White House to accept “Mountain at Bear Lake — Taos” (1930) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Acquired under the title “Bear Lake, New Mexico,” the oil painting was the gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and William D. Rollnick and Nancy Ellison Rollnick.
(O’Keeffe has also been represented in the White House by “Jimson Weed” (1932). It hung in the Bush’s private dining room for six years, an extended loan from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It was not part of the official collection.)
It was Friday, October 24, when Clinton announced the acquisition and unveiled the painting in an East Room ceremony. “I hope that as visitors walk through these halls at the White House and see the O’Keeffe hanging,” she said, “they too will feel more connected to our past, grateful for our present and more excited about our future.”
The painting was originally hung in the Green Room, but critics said it didn’t fit the state room’s 19th-century elegance. In 2004 it was moved to the Library, where, as of 2009, it was hanging above the mantel.
Art placed in the public rooms of the White House, including the Green Room, must be approved by the White House curator and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, an advisory board on which the first lady serves as honorary chair. Any works intended for the White House permanent collection, which numbers roughly 450 pieces, undergo strict vetting.
“Mountain at Bear Lake — Taos,” one of three scenes O’Keeffe painted of this sacred Pueblo site, was exhibited only once, in 1931, remaining in the artist’s possession until her death in 1986. As she sometimes did, O’Keeffe extended the scene all the way around the front and sides of the original copper frame.
I like art historian William Kloss’s detailed description of the artwork:
“The mountain at Bear Lake that dominates the painting is composed parallel to the picture plane and cropped at the sides, decisions that decrease the appearance of deep space while increasing the static dominance of the mountain. The timeless feeling thus achieved is reinforced by O’Keeffe’s decision to lessen the three-dimensionality of the mountain by eliminating smaller geological details and limiting modeling to a few carefully chosen features, such as the irregular folds of mountain walls in the right half of the painting. The startling colors of New Mexico deeply impressed O’Keeffe. Here the rich purple mountainside, accented with gray patches, is seen in shifting half lights.
“The lake is presented as a dense black band at the bottom of the canvas, modulated only by three undulating purple shapes that signify waves but do not create motion, and a thin blade of pure white slicing between lake and mountain like the brilliant reflection of sun on the water. The glowing purplish-pink sky and the shadow-black lake may suggest the end of afternoon with the sun beyond the mountains, but the blade of light on the water is more equivocal. It would be unwise to insist on literalness in an artist who habitually avoided transitory effects of time and weather.
“Often O’Keeffe’s painted surfaces appear smooth (especially in reproduction), yet there is subtle brushwork that both textures and structures the image. The brushwork in the mountain in the Mountain a Bear Lake—Taos is an example. One finds that she often painted in short blocks of diagonal strokes that follow the mountain slopes and suggest the structure of its surface, its geological shifts, while enhancing the dynamic unity of the painting.” (William Kloss, Art in the White House. 2nd edition. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008, p. 262.)
Next time: Two young women offer their own video visions of O’Keeffe’s “Mountain at Bear Lake — Taos” courtesy of the Rauschenberg Foundation. Click here to read now.