Georgia O’Keeffe Views of Hawaii at New York Botanical Gardens

May 30, 2018
Artwork by: Georgia O'Keeffe ‘Crab Claw Ginger’ was painted in 1939 by Georgia O’Keeffe while she was on her first visit to Hawaii as a consultant for an advertising agency promoting the pineapple crop.

In 1938, when artist Georgia O’Keeffe was 51 and well known for her desert paintings of cattle skulls and close-up views of flowers that have an erotic tinge to them, she was asked through an advertising company to accept an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii and in return furnish the Hawaii Pineapple Co. (now Dole) with two paintings it could use in its advertisements.

Recovering from a depression perhaps brought on by her famous husband’s philandering, she accepted. From her resulting paintings, it’s safe to say she was entranced by the lush green scenery and fragrant, exotic flowers of Hawaii. In two months she painted 17 canvases of waterfall landscapes and flowers including the lobster claw heliconia, bird of paradise and hibiscus and ginger – but no pineapple.

She also continued to write tender letters to her husband, photographer Alfred Steiglitz.

On her return, she sent Dole two paintings: one of a heliconia and one of a papaya plant. Not exactly pleased, the company quickly shipped her a pineapple plant from Hawaii and she painted “Pineapple Bud” in her studio. The painting appeared in two advertisements, one in Vanity Fair and one in The Saturday Evening Post.

For the first time since a retrospective in 1970, the 17 paintings are making an East Coast showing as part of a summer-long exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens celebrating the plants and flowers of Hawaii.

On Thursday, the Ocean County Historical Society sponsored a trip to the botanical gardens, located in the Bronx, with a side trip to the Bronx’ Little Italy on Arthur Avenue. Arthur Avenue, with its Italian bakeries, butcher shops filled with sausages and sunny cafés, transported us to “the old country.”

The gardens were a quiet oasis from the bustling streets of the Bronx. The day of the bus trip was sunny and warm, and the gardens, lawns and flowering trees were expertly cared for, one could say “manicured” – even the random chipmunk seemed to have his best suit on.

The botanical gardens, established in 1891, are made up of 250 park-like acres that straddle the Bronx River and are spread with a splendid banquet of specimen trees, daffodil gardens, magnolia groves, an azalea plantation, conifer arboretum and gardens dedicated to wildflowers, roses, edible plants, peonies and perennials of all kinds.

The wedding cake in the middle of this banquet is the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The glass edifice was modeled after the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, a London suburb.

A personal note: On a family visit back in 1967 (we were there for my brother’s science fair research), the conservatory was exotic but also carried a wistful air of neglect; for example a huge specimen of a monstera philodendron in the conservatory was marred with the names of various young thugs carved into its trunk.

In 1978, the conservatory was about to be demolished until a civic-minded philanthropist, Enid Annenberg Haupt, donated $10 million to renovate and maintain the building. Today, it is a jewel of New York’s park system.

For the summer-long tribute to Hawaii, the botanical gardens will have special programs on the weekends including hula dancing, lei making and other cultural touchstones. The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit is located in the LuEster T. Mertz Library. A tram service runs every 25 minutes through the gardens.

— Pat Johnson





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