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Black Iris III, 1926 by Georgia O'Keeffe

The iris is a familiar image in Western art, frequently used in Christian iconography; its swordlike leaves were especially employed as a symbol for Mary's suffering, a pictorial metaphor which might also have been familiar to O'Keeffe from her Catholic upbringing and her parochial schooling.

O'Keeffe' famous irises were an important preoccupation for many years; she favored the black iris, which she could only find at certain New York florists for about two weeks each spring. The enlargements and abstractions derived from the flower have often been explained in gynecological terms, almost clinical in their precision. Such explicicatons, once the province of Freudian critics, have more recently been repeated in feminist interpretations of the flower. Linda Nochlin, for example, read Black Iris III as a "morphological metaphor" for female genitalia, insisting that the connection is "immediate", "concrete", and "that the two meanings are almost interchangeable." In this merger of botany and anatomy, Nochlin found reflection of "the unity of the feminine and the natural order", a concept which enjoyed great vogue early in last century.

O'Keeffe rejected the notion of her flowers as sexual metaphors - this is something she feels is created by the viewer who applies his own associations to the works, not hers. O'Keefe maintains:

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. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers. I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower - and I don't.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Masterpieces

  • Oriental Poppies
    Oriental Poppies
  • Ram's Head with Hollyhock
    Ram's Head with Hollyhock
  • Red Canna
    Red Canna
  • Music Pink and Blue II
    Music Pink and Blue II
  • Flower of Life II
    Flower of Life II
  • Deer's Skull with Pedernal
    Deer's Skull with Pedernal
  • From the Lake
    Abstraction White Rose
  • Autumn Leaves
    Autumn Leaves
  • Cows Skull with Calico Roses
    Cows Skull with Calico Roses
  • Jack in the Pulpit
    Jack in the Pulpit
  • Music Pink and Blue
    Music Pink and Blue
  • Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory
    Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory
  • From the Lake
    From the Lake
  • Black Iris
    Black Iris
  • Summer Days
    Summer Days