Red Hill and White Shell, 1938
Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887–1986
Oil on canvas
30 × 36 1/2 in. (76.2 × 92.7 cm)
Gift of Isabel B. Wilson in memory of her mother, Alice Pratt Brown
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Teaching foreground, middle ground, and background, and spatial reasoning in an artwork.
- Learn perspective, including bird’s eye view and ant’s eye view
Connecting to the Work of Art
Crossing the line between abstraction and representational art, Georgia O’Keeffe experimented with color and form. Born in Wisconsin, she discovered the Southwestern landscape in 1912 while teaching in Amarillo, Texas. In 1929, the painter bought a ranch in the bare desert of New Mexico. Entranced by the land that surrounded her, she often painted outdoors, sleeping in a tent and wearing gloves to work on cold days.
In Red Hills with White Shell, oil paint floats like translucent watercolors. The red and yellow of the sky and white of the shell are strong, clear colors uninterrupted by black outlines or shadows. Instead, O’Keeffe connects the forms through white highlights, which create a subtler link between the objects than black outlines. The focus of the work, a nautilus shell, is magnified in scale to dominate the composition. The setting—red, arid hills, barren of grass—was visible outside her New Mexican door. In this work, O’Keeffe softened the hills to appear fluid; they appear to melt into the ground, yet still support the large shell. The burst of yellow along the skyline is reflected gently on the shell. The artist, who coveted her grandmother’s collection of seashells as a young girl, collected seashells from her travels around the world and used them as a recurring theme in her paintings.
A large portion of O’Keeffe’s work features organic objects—such as shells, flowers, and animal bones—as central themes. She once said of her work, “Nobody has seen a flower...really...it is so small…we haven’t time—and to see takes time...I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” O’Keeffe painted images in nature that symbolized her emotions. Here, the hill and the shell create an image that is mysterious and monumental, yet intense. The spiral pattern within the shell yields a serene feel, while the sweeping red hills in the background create a charged space. In enlarging the typically miniature shell, O’Keeffe provides her viewers with an intimate and emblematic image of the shell. However, the shell can also be viewed as a study in the spiritual relationship between the human psyche (the shell) and the natural world.
O’Keeffe rarely prepared advance drawings for her paintings, instead choosing to work directly on the canvas. Unlike other 20th century artists, O’Keeffe was more interested in the final product than in the process of creating art. Her distinctive style began with a single subject, such as a shell, which she altered and simplified, resulting in a study of line, shape, form, and color. American art during the first quarter of the 20th century was slowly evolving from the figurative to the abstract. Like a handful of American artists and photographers of the time, O’Keeffe was not directly influenced by European art. Instead, she aspired to create abstract compositions based on her own observation of nature. O’Keeffe’s approach was personal, and her work was a symbol of her own unique American experience.
- What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
- Consider the size and shape of the shell in the foreground. How does the artist visually connect the shell to the hills in the background? Think about color, shape, and line.
- Describe the shape and line within the shell. What other places do we find the spiral shape in nature?
- How does the large-scale size of the shell allow the viewers to focus on the object itself?
- Describe the artist’s use of white within the work. How would this image be different if the artist had included black outlines?
- Notice the lack of a horizon line, the off-kilter depth perception, and the close cropping of the composition. How does this differ from more traditional ideas of landscape painting?
- Consider the red and yellow background. How would this artwork be different if the background were blue?
- What other visual cues are juxtaposed in the artwork? For example, how the top of the shell mimics the curvature of the hills and sky while the shell’s rough bottom parallels the unevenness of the ground.
- Consider the relationship between the enlarged shell and the swelling landscape. Why do you think the artist would choose to place the emphasis on the shell?
- Explain how the up-close view of the shell, which nearly dwarfs the hills in the background, produces a sense of momentousness. What other words could describe the tone of this painting?
- We typically associate shells with the ocean. Does the shell’s placement in the desert surprise you? How does this add a mysterious feeling to the painting?
- What associations do we have with the color red? How do these associations contribute to a feeling of intensity?
- Compare the lines in the shell to the lines in the hills and the sky. How do the soft, curving lines create a feeling of serenity and calm again a tense backdrop?
- What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to the audience with the juxtaposition of the serene shell with the dramatic, red hills? How does this add to the feeling of tension?
- What personal connections can you make with this image? Have you been to the desert or the Southwest? How would it feel to be standing in the middle of this scene?
- In many of her works, the artist explored how to depict spiritual connections between the human psyche and nature. How is this concept illustrated in Red Hill and White Shell?
- Are there bigger issues to explore here? For example, how does the artist use recognizable objects to depict abstract ideas?
Red Hill and White Shell, and its unconventional use of perspective, can be an excellent way to get your students comfortable manipulating perspective and compositional choices. When looking at and discussing the painting, encourage students to analyze O’Keefe’s compositional choices. What effect does the size of the shell have on the painting? What perspective must she have used to achieve such an unusual size relationship?
To practice perspectives, students can make ant’s eye sketches or photographs of familiar objects, lying on the ground to get a close-up view. Prompt them to observe any size changes and foreshortening, as well as to capture the relationship of the object to the background. How do their sketches compare to O’Keefe’s composition?
Students can then create larger-scale drawings, paintings, or multimedia artworks based on these sketches and photographs. To achieve a similar effect to Red Hill and White Shell, they may start by painting a background color with watercolor wash, then drawing in objects and background details to complete the composition. However, this activity can be completed with any medium that is relevant to your classroom.
Subject Matter Connection
This artwork does not have an obvious message. Concepts and ideas are important in works of art but they are not always easy to discover. Students need to learn how to take apart a work of art to understand why the artist made certain decisions.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.