Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931

In praise of ... Georgia O'Keeffe's patriotic palette

A reference to the concept of the Great American Painting, Cow's Skull soon became an American West icon

Painted in 1931, Georgia O'Keeffe's Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue is one of the artist's most distinctive, and best-loved paintings. And her description of its creation is one of the many beautiful passages in our Phaidon Focus book on the artist.

Before leaving New Mexico in the the summer of 1931 O'Keeffe mailed a barrel of bones to New York so that she could continue to work on her south-western pictures. In her words, "I had to go home - what could I take with me of the country to keep me working on it?" 

But rather than paying homage to the agricultural landscape, as the Regionalist painters did, she used a weathered cow's skull to represent the enduring spirit of America. As this passage from the book reveals.


Georgia O'Keeffe on the portal at the Ghost Ranch from the Phaidon Focus book
Georgia O'Keeffe on the portal at the Ghost Ranch from the Phaidon Focus book

"When I arrived at Lake George I painted a horse's skull - then another horse's skull and then another horse's skull. In my Amarillo days cows had been so much a part of that country I couldn't think of it without them. As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel - the Great American Play - The Great American Poetry.  I am not sure that they aspired to the Great American Painting. Cézanne was so much in the air that I think the Great American Painting didn't even seem a possible dream . . . I was quite excited over our country and I knew that at that time almost any one of those great minds would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn't even want to live in New York - how was the Great America thing going to happen? So as I painted along on my cow's skull on blue I thought to msyelf, 'I'll make it an American painting. They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides - Red, White, and Blue - but they will notice it."

In selecting a cow's skull as subject matter, O'Keeffe cannily harnessed one of the myths that has struck a deep chord in the American psyche. The Phrase 'American West' summons an age of heroic individualism, a testosterone-drenched domain populated by brutal lawmen like Wyatt Earp, brave cowboys and marauding 'Indians' - traditional oponents of the cowboys and cattle ranchers. Keen to learn more? Buy the book here. And if you're anywhere near Sante Fe anytime soon be sure to check out the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum