The exact same period of time -8 years- separates "Le Bonheur de Vivre" and "Lake Georges" from the beginning of the first world war. "Le Bonheur de Vivre" of Matisse resonates like a manifest for insouciance as it reflects well the feverish state of mind in this pre-war Western Europe, joyously sending to the battlefield its soldiers with "flowers in the gun". With Lake George, Georgia O'Keeffe casts a different statement, after what has been the first worldwide barbarous modern conflict, reminding the real place of the humankind in the universe. What emanates from those two paintings is more than a pleasant sensation to the eyes: through the language of canvas, colors, forms, they are an investigation of the human soul.
Lake George, 1922.
Oil on canvas - 161/4 x 22 in
With Lake George Georgia O'Keeffe has represented on a rather small canvas a vast landscape of mountains overhung on a lake. In spite of the rather small dimensions of the painting, the viewer feels himself immediately projected inside vastness. The fact that there are no human figures, only sky, mountains and lake instills the sensation of being inside a pristine untouched land. Even if the observer has no tangible references like human being, animal, house or vehicle to estimate the scale and proximity of the chain of mountains, he has however no doubt about the immensity of the scene he is contemplating.
The magnitude of the mountains is defined by their dark blue silhouette, which cuts off the lightness of the bluish sky rising up from an endless territory. The gaze collides against the rocks barrier and rebounds on the surface of the lake which mirrors the inverse image of the mountains. The reflected image of the mountains freezes the surface of the motionless mass of water, while their crest plunge into a gradually rosy sky, evoking the unfathomable depths of the lake.
The mountains associated to their reflective image delineate an oblong structure where the union of earth and water creates a circumscribed word encompassed into boundless universes. By opposing the idea of the finite confronted to the infinite, Georgia O'Keeffe intensifies the perception of wilderness, silence and solitude that her painting conveys.
A thin line streaks the composition in its center, at the place where the foothills meet the bank of the lake, symbolizing the communion of two entities into one single body. The base of this straight line, the whitest area, leans on the darkest zone, a long sharp and blade-like shape, producing at the stare's level of the observer, in a prominent contrast and a precise outline, the focus of the painting. On its top, the white line seems to vapor like an effervescent substance and dissolves itself into a narrow green strip.
The position of the line, caught like a lamina between the mountains and their reflection, leads to sensation of pressure; on the other hand, its horizontal tension inspires resistance. With its volatility the upper strip brings a sense of fragility and evanescence, while the acute angle supporting the line manifests stability, its right-descending slope implying a silent ineluctable slow motion. It creates a whole structure which emerges from a soundless foggy coat muffling the foothills and their reflection.
As if it was a concentrate of life, the line vibrates like the tighten string of an instrument. Protected by its upper and lower layers like seeds in a pod, wrapped into the fog coat acting as a cocoon-like envelop, the membrane radiates an energy and infuses a substantial density revealing, in this spaciousness, a tiny, brittle and defiant life which results from the encounter of earth with water.
The observer does not know either the season or the moment of the day during which Georgia O'Keeffe has painted this landscape. It could be a very early sunny morning, when a hazy midst evaporates from the lake. It could be too an autumn evening, when humidity gathers heavily over the lake. Unless it is an afternoon winter, while a pale sun try to pierce through the thick layer of fog covering the lake.
This landscape is remarkable by the economy of meanings that Georgia O'Keeffe has deployed. There are no pictorial information relating trees, details about the crest of the mountains, wrinkles on the surface of the lake. Beside the overall color that she has used, turquoise green varying in degrees of brightness and darkness, Georgia O'Keeffe has allowed herself a blended purple for the reflection of the sky. No brushstrokes are visible; the pigments are applied in a uniform coat. The landscape is reduced into forms whose contours have been streamlined: it gives concave and convex outlines of geometrical figures which fit one into another.
The result is an harmonious assemblage, like a synthesis as a whole universe, where each area incarnates by itself a space, a world, but is too the complement of the others: the observer is involved as an entity who shares and contributes to this universe.
In Lake George Georgia O'Keeffe does not relate any story, but she gives the observer the feeling that she has depicted, with elegance and sobriety the essence of life.
Sketch for "Le Bonheur de Vivre", 1905-1906
Oil on canvas - 16 x 211/2 in.
By looking at the painting, or by reading its title Le Bonheur de Vivre, the viewer does not know if what he is contemplating is a landscape in which figures are only anecdotes, or if it is a mythological scene describing an hedonist Arcadia.
There are actually almost no details informing the observer about the physical attributes and gender of the many naked figures scattered in the composition. Those figures evolved quietly inside a colorful landscape, graphically mentioned as colored areas. The accent mainly brought on their nonchalant positions leads to the perception of a synthesis between the figures and the landscape, like an invitation sent to the viewer to share with this peaceful community a delectable ambience.
The harmony almost immediately sensed by the observer is related to the structural explosion of colors Matisse has elaborated in his painting, by using the whole spectrum of light. Except for the blond sand color and the rosy pink flesh tones, varying in degrees of lightness, the colors, pure and saturated, reach the eyes like an eruption. They are applied in different many ways, with so vivacious visible brushstrokes that they create an optical effect increasing the sensation of vitality: juxtaposition of patches of color, surfaces impacted with primary and secondary tones, silhouettes or details quickly expressed in strings of dashes, dots, curves, lines.
In spite of what could appear as a chaos of color, Matisse's work is a very well balanced structure, where the colors are orderly distributed. The painter has arranged his structure like a theater stage, that the observer sees from the inside, behind curtains open enough to disclose a distant view of the outside.
In the foreground, the ultramarine sea and the golden beach draw a soft elliptical curve on which are abandoned laid down naked figures. The closest figures, set off against the surface of the sea, are depicted in a clearer contour and are more modeled than the farthest one. Gradually Matisse neglects to give details and reduces the distant figures to simple surfaces of flesh colors, whose underlined edges only suggest an activity. In the same way, he progressively blends the close and burning red-orange sand into a receding yellow surface, suddenly interrupted in the background by an unfinished thick horizontal blue stroke, which summarizes the horizon. Thus, by receding focus and color, Matisse introduces the notion of depth.
The foreground is framed up by two sides, hanging in the middle ground like a drapery. The left side of the viewer, made of red, orange, yellow surfaces appears like a blazing sun; a green bowl and dark streaks are caught in this incandescent fire and are instantly consumed into white sparkles; in order to bring air and release ventilation, figures are walking, or rising the arms, or stretching a towel. The right side of the viewer relieves him from this almost unbearable heat by bringing freshness: made of green and blue areas, it evokes the shadowy shelter offered by an umbrella of trees, under which other figures are chatting and resting; the agitated movement of dashes and strokes in the green foliage expresses a welcome breathe, while the yellow dots and luminous pink areas bring the idea of an abundance of fruits and flowers, savor and fragrances.
Through the aperture between the two sides of the drapery, the observer can have a glimpse on the background: it is a prolongation of the beach, an extension of the space to the horizon.
With Le Bonheur de Vivre, Matisse has depicted agreeable sensations, when heat, completed by freshness, becomes a physical and emotional pleasure. By circumscribing this experience of sensations in a well-defined space with a "window" open on the outside, he has described a comfortable and secure intimate word, spared from the vicissitudes of the unknown, the infinite.
One could say that the first difference between Georgia O'Keeffe and Matisse is their gender. This is, for me the least difference, considering that they are first painters, both of them worldwide known for the quality and the originality of their work. A mutual observation can be made about those two artists: by the abstraction of their art, they have been able to transmit to the viewer a whole range of emotions. Beside this common characteristic, it seems that a lot of things separate Georgia O'Keeffe and Matisse.
Georgia O'Keeffe is known for her independence of style, breaking away from traditional (European) influences, when Matisse has been in the middle of all the trends and ideas which have contributed to the emergence of the European Modern Art. If both of them are known for their innovative style, Matisse, the European, still seems to be impregnated with traditional conventions, when Georgia O'Keeffe, the American, seems to invent a new language to express a new world. This distinction is perceptible in their paintings. Matisse has developed a quite classical approach in his subject (nudity), in his treatment of perspective (receding details and color), in his organization of space. On the contrary in Georgia O'Keeffe's landscape, the sense of depth is given by the juxtaposition of different forms (like in a Japonese perspective); the way she has treated her landscape as a subject clarified from any details institutes a different concept in painting the American reality, like a metaphysical vision.
A striking contrast between le Bonheur de Vivre and Lake George, which have almost the same dimensions, is the use of colors and forms. Matisse has, with exuberance, cast a profusion of color in a multiplicity of forms in order to describe a finite word; Georgia O'Keeffe, with a minimum of color and few lines has coped with the infinite of the universe.
The feelings resulting from the observation of those works are opposed. Matisse's work conveys the emotion of a song, like a joyous cacophony of notes and the murmur of cicadas; Georgia O'Keeffe's work sounds like a one-voice song sliding slowly into silence, streaked once a while by a strident howl.
Matisse's painting induces a beautiful fleeting emotion, like a privileged instant of life, an urgent impression stolen to apocalyptical premonitions. The viewer shares with Georgia O'Keeffe's painting the renewal of humankind with the universe, as a moment of immense forgiveness and the promise of another future.
GABRIEL CREPALDI, Matisse (Artbook, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1999).
GARZANTI, Encyclopedie de l'Art (La Pochoteque: Encyclopedie d'aujourd'hui, Paris, 1986).
Dictionnaire des Courants Picturaux (Larousse, Paris, 1997).
RENATA NEGRI, Chefs d'Oeuvre de l'Art, le XXe siecle (Hachette, Paris, 1965).
J. ELDERFIELD, Matisse in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, New-York, 1978).
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (Abrams, New-York, 1997).
TIME MAGAZINE American Visions (Time Inc, New-York, Spring 1997).