The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1930.
Oil on canvas, 1929
O'Keeffe in New Mexico
In spring 1929, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan invited O’Keeffe to visit her home in Taos, New Mexico. The invitation produced conflicted emotions in the artist. On one hand, O’Keeffe loved the West and its landscapes: she had visited Santa Fe and 1917 and had recently seen Paul Strand’s photographs of his time in New Mexico. On the other hand, O’Keeffe had not spent an extended amount of time away from Stieglitz.
She did decide to venture west, however, and ended up staying in Taos for four months, declaring she wouldn’t have returned to New York at all if not for Stieglitz. She later explained, “You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here. And finally feeling in the right place again—I feel like myself—and I like it.” For O’Keeffe, Taos was a spiritual place where she felt more at home than she had in all her years in New York. Even Stieglitz, who was increasingly jealous of her newfound freedom, stated that he “knew the Southwest…was the thing for her. Freedom is necessary to sincerity.”
This trip was the beginning of a shift in O’Keeffe’s art and represented a movement away from Stieglitz’s influence. In Taos, O’Keeffe gained independence, and although she missed Stieglitz, she realized that she preferred to be alone to work and that the New Mexican landscape inspired her on a spiritual level. She explained her love for the West in a letter, writing, “the Taos country—it is so beautiful—and so poisonous—…Much country—desert and mountain—and relatively keep the human being as about the size of a pin point—That was my feeling—is my feeling about my summer—most of the human side of it isn’t worth thinking about…”
The Mission Church of Saint Francis de Asis in Ranchos de Taos
O’Keeffe learned how to drive while visiting Dodge Luhan and happened upon the Mission Church of Saint Francis de Asis in Ranchos de Taos during one of her drives. The Pueblo Indians inhabited the area for nearly a thousand years before the Spaniards arrived in 1540 to convert the Indians to Catholicism. The Spanish settled the village of Ranchos de Taos by 1716 and completed the adobe church around 1815. This particular church has been portrayed more often than nearly any other church in the United States by artists such as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and John Marin, with O’Keeffe contributing several versions herself.
Look carefully at Ranchos Church, No. II, N.M. In what ways does O’Keeffe connect the church to the natural landscape? O’Keeffe depicts the apse end of the church from the west, transforming it into sculptural form against an azure blue sky. Because she paints the structure with undulating forms, it appears as if it has emerged from the earth, giving it the appearance of a natural landmass rather than a man-made structure.
Looking closely at Ranchos Church
What differences can you identify? O’Keeffe replaced the angular lines and darker colors of the earlier picture painted in the northeast with curvilinear, organic forms and light, earthy hues more characteristic of the southwest. Do you think these changes only reflect the different geographies or also express a shift in the artist’s state of mind? Reflecting on her paintings of the Ranchos de Taos church nearly forty years later, O’Keeffe wrote about the church:
[It] is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it—the back several times, the front once. I finally painted a part of the back thinking that with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church…And I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at.
Compare Ranchos Church, No. II, N.M. to Strand’s photograph of the church from 1932. What can you identify in the photograph that is not in the painting? Do you react differently to the two images? O’Keeffe clearly did not simply copy the forms of the church; instead, she eliminated details and texture from the building. Similarly, she colored the building and the ground in the same hue, linking them together. These changes allow O’Keeffe to express the sensual qualities of the environment and create a sense of movement, as if the church was a living being imbued with its own life and breath.
New Mexico became O’Keeffe’s true home, and she continued to travel to Taos from New York nearly every year in the 1930s and early 1940s. Three years after Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently, writing about the state: “My world is beautiful and impossible and I am so pleased to be here.”