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
How to Be a Gatekeeper of Information:
The Geology of a Landscape
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.
•Analyze a work of art
•Relate science and technology to art
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?
1. Research Georgia O´Keeffe.
As a homework assignment instruct students to research Georgia O´Keeffe and, specifically, her life in New Mexico. In addition, ask students to bring in a rock or shell to class to be used as a subject to draw or paint.
- How do you think her surroundings influenced Red Hills with White Shell?
- How do you think O´Keeffe´s surroundings influenced her art? Explain.
With your students, view Explore the Art in the Learn About the Art section.
2. Research Rocks and Shells.
Divide students into small groups. Provide each group with a magnifying glass and various types of rocks include examples of intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks, clastic and nonclastic sedimentary rocks, and foliated and nonfoliated metamorphic rocks. Also include the rocks and shells brought in by students.
- Using your magnifying glass, study the samples and devise a way to categorize the rocks and shells based on their characteristics.
- Which category would the shell in this painting belong to?
Classification categories might include: color, texture, mineral composition, or origin. Allow 15 to 20 minutes for this activity. After the groups have agreed upon a method of classification, have each group share their system. There are no correct or incorrect answers.
3. Examine the Red Hills.
- Discuss O´Keeffe´s color choices. Do you think the rock is really that red? Explain.
- What time of day might it be? How can you tell?
- What kind of rocks do you think make up the hills? Why?
4. Examine the White Shell.
As a child, O´Keeffe was intrigued by her grandmother´s collection of seashells.
- Considering the type of rock found in the area, do you think a shell of this sort would be found in a location like this? Why or why not?
Using the information in the Handouts section, learn about nautilus shells.
- Why do you think O´Keeffe was so intrigued by shells?
- Why do you think she made the decision to paint a nautilus shell in this landscape?
5. Create a Work of Art.
Have students return to the rock or shell that they brought to class and paint or draw two versions: one as a scientific study based on the classification technique and another that emphasizes components of the object that they find most interesting. Ask students to share and discuss their paintings with the class.
Georgia O´Keeffe once said that "Nobody has seen a flower… really… it is so small… we haven´t time … and to see one takes time - I´ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it." What does O´Keeffe want the viewer to see in this painting? Why do you think O´Keeffe created this painting? Explain.
Extensions to the lesson
Language Arts: Shell Poetry
As a class, read the poem The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes as they view O´Keeffe´s Red Hills with White Shell. What specfic words from the poem can you pick out that might describe the shell in this painting? How have the poet and artist approached the same subject differently?
Social Studies: The 20th Century
O´Keeffe was born in 1887 and died in 1986. Research the historical events that occurred in the United States during her lifetime. Specifically note the events that shaped the lives of women and provided greater opportunity, such as the right to vote.
Math: The Golden Spiral
Study the mathematics behind a spiral: logarithmic spirals, geometric progressions, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci sequence. Take a picture of a nautilus shell and divide it into pieces. Estimate and then measure the area of each piece using grid paper. What is the pattern of the progression of areas?
Art: Watercolors of Nature
Collect photographs and examples of old bones, animal skulls, flowers, seashells, and landscapes. As a class, have students describe the shapes they see using single words (for example, curved, jagged, or broken). Using watercolors, have students create a painting that reflects their subject and its shape.
Subject Matter Connection
The artist Georgia O´Keeffe spent much of the 1930´s and 1940´s on a ranch in the New Mexico desert. This landscape inspired many of her paintings, such as Red Hills with White Shell. Her work often features natural objects, such as flowers, shells, and even animal bones, as central elements.
O´Keeffe once said, "Nobody has ever 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."
Compare the size of the seashell and the surrounding hills. Describe what you see.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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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.