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- © Artists Rights Society (ARS)
- 20th Century American Painting
- Cross by the Sea, Canada , 1932
- oil on canvas
- 36 in. x 24 in. (91.44 cm x 60.96 cm)
- Georgia O'Keeffe (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, 1887 - 1986, Santa Fe, New Mexico)
- Museum Purchase: Currier Funds, 1960.1
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Interpretive text from Exploring American Art: An Online Resource for the American Collections
Over the course of her long career, Georgia O'Keeffe produced a varied body of work that includes not only her well-known flower paintings but images of skyscrapers, buffalo skulls, wooden crosses, and some of the earliest abstract compositions by an American artist. Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O'Keeffe studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to the Art Students League of New York. After a year of courses under William Merritt Chase (q.v.) and others, O'Keeffe set out on her own, first as a commercial illustrator and then as an art instructor at schools in Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Growing dissatisfied with the quality of her work, O'Keeffe in 1915 decided to make a new beginning, discarding her previous training to explore her own ideas. The result was a series of nonobjective charcoal drawings that O'Keeffe sent to a friend in New York City. These drawings soon reached Alfred Stieglitz (q.v.), who showed them at his modernist gallery "291." With Stieglitz as her mentor, O'Keeffe gave up teaching and became a full-time painter in New York. The two were married in 1924, and until Stieglitz's death in 1946 she exhibited regularly at his Intimate Gallery and its successor, An American Place. In 1949 O'Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico, where she had spent most of her summers since 1929. The artist traveled widely during the 1950s and 1960s, and inspired by views from airplane windows, she executed a number of cloud studies, including the major mural, Sky above Clouds IV (1965, The Art Institute of Chicago). O'Keeffe was the recipient of numerous retrospective exhibitions as well as many awards and honors. She died in New Mexico in 1986.
The cross appears in O'Keeffe's work beginning in 1929, when she first visited New Mexico. While on a walk with her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan, she passed a morada, or Penitente church. Impressed by the stark simplicity of wooden crosses against the sunset, she made several paintings of the subject, including the well-known Black Cross, New Mexico (1929, The Art Institute of Chicago). Three years later, she encountered crosses again while on a visit to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. Among the resulting paintings is the Currier's Cross by the Sea, completed in 1932.
Cross by the Sea depicts a memorial to a young priest who was the victim of drowning. Positioned close to the picture plane and stretching almost to the edges of the canvas, a gray wooden cross rises against a backdrop of sea and sky. A small picket fence and a spot of greenery encircle its base, providing a sense of grounding. On the vertical shaft of the cross, a small placard reads: ICI S'EST NOYE LE 4 JUIN 1875/ LE REVD. E.V. COTE/ P[R]ETRE MISS. DU MONT LOUIS/ AGE D'ENVIRON 26 ANS/ PRIEZ POUR LUI (Here was drowned on the 4th of June, 1875, the Reverend E. V. Cote, Missionary Priest of Mount Louis, aged around 26 years. Pray for him).
Like her cross paintings of 1929, Cross by the Sea raises the frail wooden memorial to the level of the monumental and universal. Juxtaposed against a limitless expanse of blue, the cross literally demarcates the sky. At the same time, the firm lines of both the cross and the horizon suggest the harmony of natural and spiritual law. Although O'Keeffe was not a member of any church or faith group, she was attracted to the contemplative and mystic aspects of Roman Catholicism, seeing its eremitic shrines and votive monuments as metaphors for man's connectedness with the universe. It is for this reason, perhaps, that she was careful to include the inscription on the cross: on one hand, the young priest was simply the victim of a tragic accident; on the other, his death amid the waves can be read as a kind of poetic merging of man and the elements, and a freeing of the soul to attain a higher level of awareness.
Cross by the Sea was first exhibited in 1935 at Stieglitz's An American Place. After Stieglitz's death, this painting and others in O'Keeffe's inventory were handled by noted dealer Edith Gregor Halpert of the Downtown Gallery in New York. Cross by the Sea was purchased by the Currier Museum of Art through the Downtown Gallery in 1959.
Lloyd Goodrich and Doris Bry. Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.
Barbara Buhler Lynes. Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
Roxana Robinson. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
The information presented here is reviewed regularly and may change as result of ongoing research.