Georgia O’Keeffe – Gardener

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Photography

The current show of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, Modern Nature, at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum reveals the the gardener observing nature.

O'Keefe purple petunia

The works in the exhibition are all from a period of her life when she painted at the vacation resort town of Lake George, New York, before moving to the Southwest where she spent most of her career.  O’Keeffe was married to Alfred Stieglitz during this time, the famous photographer and gallerist who almost single handedly popularized impressionist art in America.

We see her studies of the Eastern landscapes with the trees, leaves, and most remarkably the garden flowers from the summer garden of the Stieglitz family, seen with the appreciation of a gardener that seeks to celebrate plants.

“I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then.” Georgia O’Keeffe 1921

In a remarkable essay by Erin B. Coe from the book that accompanies the exhibit, Modern Nature, O’Keeffe’s early years are presented as a gardener where she expressed “an intimacy with the soil”.  In the book we learn of the influence of Donald Davidson (husband to Elizabeth Stieglitz) the Columbia trained horticulturist who was heavily influenced by Luther Burbank.

Burbank was the most important plant breeder of his time with more than 800 new varieties of plants making gardening extraordinarily popular.  He was considered a “plant wizard” and sought to create new flower colors the way a painter would go about “choosing colors for his palette”.


When planning the summer gardens, O’Keeffe and Davidson would study Burbank’s seed catalogues, groundbreaking with its color pictures by unknown photographers, where he urged his readers to use “good taste in the selection and combination of colors.”


An early Burbank crinkly Shirley Poppy from volume 9  “His Methods and Discoveries and their Practical Application” 1914, now published by Luther Burbank Online.

Just as gardeners today scour seed catalogs looking for new and remarkable plants, one can imagine O’Keeffe’s excitement finding these new flowers and then bringing them into the “Shanty” where she painted at Lake George.

O’Keeffe’s Red Poppy

Georgia O'Keefe "red Poppy" 1927

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.” Georgia O’Keeffe

It’s hard to imagine any flower artist today not being influenced by O’Keeffe.  She truly looked deep into flowers, and found her own world.  It makes great sense now, knowing that she was a gardener, exploring new worlds as all gardeners do almost every time we lose ourselves in a flower.

And for this flower photographer, pursuing new worlds with digital manipulations, her inspiration is boundless and her words insightful as I begin to remove distracting details from photos:

Red Amaryllis flower, close up with anthers

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” O’Keeffe 1922

More on the Red Amaryllis photo and the process behind it on my personal blog Mental Seeds.  Thank you Ms. O’Keeffe.

The O’Keeffe show at the DeYoung Museum goes until May 11.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Charles February 25, 2014, 5:27 am

These are without question very beautiful images as is yours at the end. I can’t shake off a discomfort though at this removal of “distracting detail”. What this really means in relation to the flowers (in this instance) is the removal of all those imperfections which make the object real- a true rendition of the subject. This idealisation of the image extends throughout the plant and photography world, resulting in a totally unrealistic sense of gardens and plants in the garden media. If you think for a moment about the discomfort many have with the idealisation of images of women in the media you’ll have an idea of where I am coming from.

Charles – You are begging for a long discussion. 🙂 but for some artist, as OKeefe said in my closing quote “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things”.
Removing details is not removing imperfections, but distractions. I don’t always want my viewer to get caught up in the realism and analyze details. The experience of viewing the garden or the flower is larger than the detail. It is not meant as a media interpretation orcommercial, but rather a personal one. – Saxon

Laurin Lindsey February 25, 2014, 4:16 pm

I have loved Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork as long as I can remember. I have made several visits to her museum in Santa Fe and stayed at the Laughing Horse Inn in Taos were she would hang out with many of her now famous contemporaries when it was a newspaper.
Thank you sharing more of her history and connection with gardening! The Red Amaryllis is stunning!

Thanks Lauren. I love her Southwest style and the museum in Santa Fe too, but never realized the Eastern influence. – Saxon

Emma February 26, 2014, 5:10 am

I absolute am in love with these Georgia O’Keefe images that you posted. I used to have a collection of greeting cards by her that I framed and displayed in my living room. I always had lovely comments from visitors. As time went by and changing out the décor, I somehow misplaced those framed greeting cards. Your post has inspired me to find prints to re-frame and hang up in my living room again. Thank you very much for your post. I’m most appreciative.

Always glad to inspire. One can’t gp too wrong with O”Keefe hanging on the walls; I even think the O’Keefe poppy was also a postage stamp. – Saxon

commonweeder March 3, 2014, 8:23 am

I’ve always been a ‘big picture’ person, so I never worry about details – and can’t imagine confusing art with nature. I remember that poppy stamp and it that something so beautiful can become an ordinary part of our day. For a while.

Beverly March 7, 2014, 4:27 pm

I believe Georgia’s last name has two F’s in it.

I have one of her flower painting books and greatly enjoy the images. Being a former Master Gardener, I like nothing better than being surrounded by brilliant color and horticultural detail. The link to Luther Burbank makes perfect sense for Georgia’s artistry.

Saxon Holt March 10, 2014, 12:42 am

Thank You ! for the correction. Yikes. How did I not catch that…

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