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Georgia O’Keeffe: Ram's Head and White Hollyhock

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American painter who is probably most famous for her beautiful and unmistakable close-ups of flowers and shells, as well as her New Mexico landscapes, some of which incorporated bleached desert bones.


Georgia O'Keeffe


O’Keeffe wanted to find the essence of natural objects through her painting. She was a master at using colour, light and shadow to simplify the complexity of nature on the canvas, giving the viewer a unique vision of the natural world.

Some people in O’Keeffe’s day found her close-ups of flowers almost erotic, looking like the female reproductive organs. O’Keeffe herself dismissed this.

Find the following paintings (listed below) online, and see if you agree. (Of course, you may also find others.)

  • Red Canna (1923)
  • Black Iris (1926)
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV (1930)

Tasks and Activities


"Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time - and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

  1. Explain in your own words what O’Keeffe meant by this quote. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
  2. A lot of young people are stressed out because their days are overfilled with school, hobbies, friends, work, Internet, and other activities. Do you feel that you have enough time for everything you are supposed to do? Do you get enough time just to “stop and smell the roses”, as they say? What things would you like to have more time for?
  3. Make a list of five small, but good things in life and share it with a partner.

Describing a Painting

Ram's Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico, 1935, is one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s most recognizable paintings.

The following “chunks” or words that often go together, can be used to describe Ram's Head and White Hollyhock. Match them up.

Now use the words above and describe the painting. You can also comment on the use of color, contrast, composition (how it is put together – foreground, background), lines or movement, and repetition. These questions will help you:

  • Color: Are the colors subdued or bright?
  • Contrast: Where is there contrast between: light and dark; dead and alive; round and pointed?
  • Composition: Discuss the size and placement of the skull and hollyhock compared to the sky and hills.
  • Lines and movement: Where can you find lines that are:

    • Horizontal?
    • Diagonal?
    • Vertical?
  • Repetition: Which colors are repeated?
  • Where can you find v-shapes (there are at least two)?
  • What do the hollyhock and clouds have in common?
  • Suggestions
    • Are the colors subdued or bright?
      subdued, muted
    • Where is there contrast between:
      light and dark – in the horns, clouds, and hills
      dead and alive - the skull versus the hollyhock; the hills versus the trees and shrubs
      round and pointy - the hollyhock and clouds are round and organic; the skull and hills are pointy and angular
    • Discuss the size and placement of the skull and hollyhock compared to the sky and hills.
      The skull and hollyhock hang, as if suspended in air, in the middle of the painting; they are much bigger than the clouds and hills in the background and therefore appear to be much closer.
    • Where can you find lines that are:
      Horizontal? on the underside of the clouds
      Diagonal? in the hills (and curving diagonal lines in the clouds and horns)
      Vertical? in the nose of the skull
    • Which colors are repeated?
      The color of the horns is repeated in the hills; the hollyhock, skull, and clouds all contain a lot of white
    • Where can you find v-shapes (there are at least two)?
      In the horns and the hills (these are inverted (upside-down)
    • What do the hollyhock and clouds have in common?
      They have the same shape and color; the outline of the hollyhock is repeated in the shape of the clouds, especially at the top, between the horns.

Understanding Symbols

  1. Find O’Keeffe’s famous Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) online. O’Keeffe painted it to represent America. It has become a classic symbol of the American West. Which elements in the painting make it “American”?


    The red, white and blue are the colors of the American flag; the skull represents the American West.

  2. There are many opinions about what the white cow’s skull symbolizes. Certainly, it represents the American West. But it can also stand for other concepts. Some feel it represents death, while others see it as representing Christ on the Cross; yet others feel it depicts purity, while some read into it the harshness of nature or the spirit of America. Explain at least one of these interpretations, that is: in what way can someone say that the skull symbolizes death, or purity, etc.?

    • death – because:
    • purity – because:
    • the harshness of nature – because:
    • the spirit of America – because:

  • death – because the skull is from a dead animal. Human skulls are a widely recognized symbol of death.
  • purity – because the desert has weathered and bleached away the flesh, leaving only a clean and pure, white skull.
  • the harshness of nature – because the skull used to belong to a living animal, which is now dead. Furthermore, the elements have stripped away everything except the hard, dry, white bone.
  • the spirit of America – because the fact that it has survived the elements shows the idea of America’s enduring spirit, a strength of character, never giving up
Sist oppdatert 13.12.2018
Skrevet av Celia Suzanna Sandor


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