The late 1930s were a time of great change and upheaval in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her mentor and husband, the famous photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, became romantically involved with a wealthy young married woman named Dorothy Norman. Even after O’Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown over the stress of his infidelity, the love affair continued.
The nervous breakdown so incapacitated O’Keeffe that she did not pursue her art for almost two years. An essential part of her recovery was travel. She renewed her regular summer trips to Abiquiu, New Mexico but also went to Maine, Bermuda, and Hawai‘i. These trips took her away from her husband’s ongoing relationship with Norman and introduced her to fresh subject matter. In the late 1930s, more than one critic had written that they were getting tired of her Southwest images. O’Keeffe’s three-month sojourn in Hawai‘i was at the invitation of the New York advertising agency N.W. Ayer. Ayer executive Earl Thomas, who had arranged an honorary doctorate for O’Keeffe from William and Mary College in Virginia, sent the artist to Hawai‘i on the Matson oceanliner S.S. Lurline. The Ayer company had previously commissioned Charles Sheeler to photograph a Ford plant and Edward Steichen to photograph the oceanliner itself for Matson. Dole Company was the client that underwrote O’Keeffe’s expenses in exchange for a painting of a pineapple.
During her stay, O’Keeffe traveled around Oahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i. She painted landscapes in the Iao Valley, numerous flowers, including bella donna, hibiscus, plumeria, ginger and lotus, surreal pictures of fishhooks, and formations of black lava. These paintings were featured in the Academy’s 1990 exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings in Hawai‘i.
While in Hawai‘i, O’Keeffe met many prominent local figures including Atherton Richards and Richard Pritzlaff, Hana Plantation manager Willis Jennings, and painter Robert Lee Eskridge, to whom she gave her paints when leaving the islands.
Photographs of O’Keeffe smiling broadly are evidence of her own assertion that she considered Hawai‘i one of the most beautiful and remarkable of places. When the Hawaiian paintings were exhibited at An American Place in 1940, her exhibition statement was no less emphatic:
“If my painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me, I may say that these paintings are what I have to give at present for what three months in Hawai‘i gave to me.”
.."Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like having a friend takes time..." Georgia O'Keefe
An Orchid Painting by Hawaii resident Kerrilyn Joy ,influenced by Georgia O'Keefe
A young local artist also influenced by Georgia O'Keefe (image from the local Newspaper)