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Features / March 17, 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe Loved Canada, “A Grand Place to Paint”

In 1932, Georgia O'Keeffe made two trips to Canada, praising the landscape in letters home. Some of her canvases made here also prefigure later work.
Georgia O’Keeffe as photographed by Alfred Steiglitz in 1918. In letters to Steiglitz, O'Keeffe described many of her travels, including ones to Canada. Courtesy  J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© The J. Paul Getty Trust. Georgia O’Keeffe as photographed by Alfred Steiglitz in 1918. In letters to Steiglitz, O'Keeffe described many of her travels, including ones to Canada. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust.

Earlier this month, many art lovers in Canada were abuzz with the news of a new Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective that will travel in 2017 to the Art Gallery of Ontario—the show’s only North American stop.

But fewer Canadians are aware of the canvases O’Keeffe created in Canada, which she described as “a grand place to paint.”

And at least a few of the canvases O’Keeffe made in Canada prefigure her later, and better known, work from New Mexico.

The book My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, which comprehensively documents correspondence between these two great artists and lovers, details two trips O’Keeffe took to Canada in 1932, both of which contributed to her painting practice.

A Scouting Trip to the Laurentian Hills

In June 1932, O’Keeffe took a brief three-day trip by car to Quebec, focusing on sketches of barns and crosses.

Departing from Lake George in upstate New York on June 8, 1932, O’Keeffe set off with Georgia Engelhard (Alfred Steiglitz’s niece) in search of subjects to paint—and they found plenty.

As O’Keeffe recounted in a June 10, 1932, letter to Steiglitz:

“We went into the Laurentian Hills—northwest of Montreal—as perfect a kind of landscape as I ever saw—perfectly kept too—very lovely—Then toward Quebec till I got drawings of barns I had in mind—two rather grand crosses—so different from the New Mexico crosses—Sharp and white with obvious hearts on them—

We drove six hundred and ten miles—
I am a bit weary—but I am glad I went.”

Based on the Canadian crosses O’Keeffe describes—”Sharp and white with obvious hearts on them”—she created the painting Cross With a Red Heart later that year. This work is currently on long-term loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Stretching Canvases until Midnight on the St. Lawrence

Later that summer, O’Keeffe took a longer, three-week trip to Quebec with Engelhard.

On this trip, O’Keeffe made a series of seven or eight barn paintings—one of which, White Canadian Barn Painting II, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

As the Met’s website states, in Canada, O’Keeffe “painted a series of seven barns whose austere design and blackened doors and windows prefigure her later series of New Mexico patio doors.”

During this trip, she also began the painting Green Mountains, Canada, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Appropriately, this painting also hung in the American Embassy in Ottawa in 2009.

O’Keeffe shared details of the first day of the trip in a letter to Steiglitz:

“We went right through Montreal without stopping—a rather shortcut by a different bridge and were up here at the place we wanted to come to around ten—We made ourselves at home in a small, one-room cabin on the river — The St. Lawrence — feels a bit like the ocean — tall trees behind at the road — river in front — car right beside the door — a small porch — all very good.

Then we went out for drawings of our barns — got our canvases stretched — everything ready to paint — Then we drove about thirty miles more up the road to see if it was better — decided it wasn’t — had supper up there and drove back into the sunset and wonderful storm clouds — It was very good — we both enjoyed it very much.”

She followed up a few days later:

“You would have laughed to see us crawling around over the floor stretching canvases last night till nearly midnight—after having driven slowly along the road in the evening light looking at all the places we liked.”

In Love with the “Grand” Gaspé

O’Keeffe and Engelhard then headed to Cap des Rosiers on the far eastern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula. There, they stayed in a cabin owned by H.J. Riffou, who also ran a general store in the area.

Home to the tallest lighthouse in Canada, Cap des Rosiers is known for its dramatic land-and-sea scenery. The drive there passes by several of the crosses that line the St. Lawrence to commemorate men lost on the water.

Unsurprisingly, on this trip, O’Keeffe also began the painting Cross By the Sea, Canada. It is now in the collection of the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire.

On August 17, 1932, O’Keeffe wrote again to Steiglitz from Cap des Rosiers.

“We got out of the car to take a walk and found a cabin under trees over a grand high rock and the sea with a sandy beach below that is so perfect we still can’t believe it true….

You couldn’t think of anything more perfect—I couldn’t imagine such a place existing—the cliff rising up back of it all is as grand as anything I’ve seen—”

Later, on August 22, O’Keeffe described her enjoyment of the Cap des Rosiers beach in another letter to Steiglitz:

“When the tide is low you can walk quite far up the beach and the rocks rising up over you are very grand and very beautiful colors from grey to gold—no red—We even took off our clothes and ran up and down the beach—and lay in the sun and climbed about this rock—lay on it for hours watching the water”

All in all, O’Keeffe declared the Gaspé “a grand place to paint.”

Upcoming O’Keeffe Exhibition Highlights

Though Art Gallery of Ontario officials haven’t confirmed whether any of the works O’Keeffe made during her Canadian travels will be in the upcoming retrospective, there are other tantalizing aspects to the show.

This major O’Keeffe retrospective is curated by Tate Modern, which will debut the exhibition this summer.

The show will feature over 100 paintings examining O’Keeffe’s entire career, from her time as a teacher in Virginia and Texas to her famed late work made in New Mexico, and the show will include O’Keeffe’s painting Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 (1932)—the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction.

Walmart heiress Alice B. Walton paid $44.4 million for Jimson Weed at a Sotheby’s auction in November 2014. It is now in the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which Walton founded and funds.

Though not painted in Canada, Jimson Weed was made in the same year that O’Keeffe undertook her Canadian travels.

Organized by Tate Modern in collaboration with the AGO and the Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna, the Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective will make its only North American stop in Toronto in the summer of 2017.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via