ST. PETERSBURG — A painting by modern master Georgia O'Keeffe was hung on a gallery wall Tuesday in the Museum of Fine Arts and became one of the most significant additions to its collection in several decades.
Grey Hills Painted Red, New Mexico is the gift of a donor who prefers to remain anonymous. John Schloder, the museum's director, said it was a complete surprise.
"We got a cold call," he said, "and a lady told us that she had an O'Keeffe painting and asked would we be interested in seeing it. It went from there."
Establishing a value on a work of art is difficult unless it's actually purchased, but O'Keeffe paintings from the 1920s and 1930s that have come on the market in recent years have usually commanded between about $2 million and $6 million.
Two paintings from those decades will go on the auction block today at Christie's in New York and carry similar estimates.
"The museum," Schloder said, "could never have afforded it."
The donor isn't a member of the museum, Schloder said, but told him she loved visiting and her favorite painting was O'Keeffe's Poppy, one of the collection's most beloved works, and she wanted the museum to have the one she owned.
Grey Hills Painted Red was created in 1930 during one of the artist's most prolific and critically praised points of her career. This landscape joins two other O'Keeffe paintings in the museum's collection, one an abstract and the other a flower, also from that period, so it is an especially significant acquisition.
It has been owned by several private collectors and lent over the years to museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
O'Keeffe (1887-1986) was one of the most influential American artists of the early 20th century whose new and original style lyrically combined realism with abstraction.
By the mid 1920s, in spite of her gender, she was also one of the most successful, selling a group of her flower paintings for a record $25,000.
She was helped in her professional rise by the influential photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who recognized her talent immediately and organized a New York show in 1917. Though he was 23 years her senior and married, they soon became lovers, married in 1924 and remained so until his death in 1946.
O'Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929. It became a major source of inspiration for her and she would return annually, settling there permanently in the late 1940s. She worked there in relative isolation, away from the clamorous New York art world, until the end of her life, taking on a somewhat mythic status, especially for feminists.
At the time of her death, she had created several hundred paintings and many more drawings and other works on paper. The museum in Santa Fe, N.M., that bears her name has about 1,100 O'Keeffe works.
O'Keeffe has always been popular with the public and collectors but, beginning in the 1960s, her critical reputation slipped. Interpretations of her work were often reduced to sexual readings, which she vehemently rejected; she was considered too decorative a painter. A retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970 validated her extraordinary leap into a new form of abstraction that was so different from anything being done in Europe and certainly in the United States. The exhibit made clear her influence on several generations of painters.
When she created Grey Hills Painted Red, she was only beginning to understand the terrain and colors of the Southwest, and it seems more tentative than many subsequent works that sprang from her love of the vistas around Santa Fe and Taos. But her treatment of the clouds, which seem to be pulled across the sky like a shredded tarpaulin, is O'Keeffe at her best.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.