Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Lake George Years
When I chose the setting for An Affinity For Murder, the first book in my Lake George Mystery Series, I knew I’d have an abundance of background material to draw on. The upstate New York lake and its environs, once seen along with Lake Champlain as the crossroads of the continent, boast a rich and colorful history. In fact, 2005 kicks off the region’s bicenquinquagenary, a fancy word for a five-year-long commemoration of the French and Indian War, now considered by many scholars the crucible of the American Revolution.
Add in present day concerns with ecology, tourism and the environment and Lake George offers even more grist for the mystery writing mill. But, for me, one fact about the lake proved most intriguing. Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, spent fifteen summers—often extended summers—at Lake George and found inspiration for many of her best-loved paintings there.
O’Keeffe, a native of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, made her way to northern New York by a circuitous route. One of seven children in a farm family, she had seen herself from an early age as an artist, even recalling her fascination with the play of light and shadow on the coverings in her crib. She studied at several art schools in the east and in 1916 accepted a job as head of the art department at a small college in Canyon, Texas.
While teaching in Texas, O’Keeffe corresponded with Alfred Stieglitz, a New York City art impresario. Stieglitz, who deplored the influence of the French on American art, responded to the simplicity of O’Keeffe’s drawings. Although he was a force in the New York art world, his relationship with the unknown artist got off to a rocky start when he displayed her watercolors without her permission in his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue and called her Virginia O’Keeffe in the bargain.
O’Keeffe’s immediate reaction was to insist he dismantle the exhibit, but he quickly won her over by his enthusiasm for her work. They became friends and, soon afterward, lovers. In 1918 she accompanied Stieglitz for the first time to his family’s summer home, Oaklawn, on Lake George 200 miles upstate.
During her annual visits there with Stieglitz, O’Keeffe drew inspiration from her surroundings to paint panoramic views of the lake and mountains, and close-up studies of individual objects, trees, flowers and rustic buildings. “I wish you could see the place here,” she wrote to her friend, author Sherwood Anderson. “There is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees… It is really lovely.”
The massive flower paintings she created during her time at Lake George came to be seen as some of her richest, most powerful images. Flowers were thought to be an appropriate subject for women, but O’Keeffe, always quick to defy convention, made hers huge in size. “Nobody sees a flower—it is so small—we haven’t time. I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it,” she said and compared her flowers to tall buildings going up.
But her flowers were nothing like buildings; they were sensual, erotic even, although O’Keeffe never acknowledged this characterization of them or credited the sexual interpretations others made of them. The nude photographs of her Steiglitz took and exhibited during this period were seen by many to show striking similarities to her flower paintings, especially the Black Iris III, thought by many experts to be the most exquisite of all.
Although she was attaining recognition as an artist during these years, life at Oaklawn often proved difficult for O’Keeffe. The gregarious Stieglitz enjoyed the steady influx of guests and encouraged talk and intellectual discussions. O’Keeffe longed for privacy and the chance to paint. Sometimes in the evening he would row her out on the lake for a short break from the noise and confusion. One painting especially testifies to her desire for solitude—a 6” by 8” watercolor of water and sky, apparently painted at night while she sat in the stern of the rowboat, its size a marked departure from her other lake paintings.
Unfortunately for those of us who live in the Lake George area, little remains to mark O’Keeffe’s presence at the lake. As far as I could determine, she left no works behind either in local galleries and museums or as sales or gifts to friends. When Stieglitz died in 1948, she settled his affairs and moved to New Mexico, taking with her any paintings not already sold to dealers and collectors in New York City and other metropolitan areas.
If I wanted to write a mystery involving O’Keeffe paintings, I realized I must learn more about her work, especially the paintings she’d done during her summer visits to Lake George. The newly opened O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe proved an excellent source of information. The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City were most helpful. I was even given a behind-the-scenes tour of some of her paintings not on display. My best break came when a traveling exhibit of O’Keeffe’s work arrived at the Phillips Museum in Washington, DC while I was attending a Malice Domestic Conference nearby. By extending my trip, I was able to spend a large part of two days viewing some of the very paintings I’d be referring to in the book.
And, of course, to a former librarian, the hours spent pouring over art books and internet sites and doing research at my local and other public libraries proved an extra plus.
For first-hand information on O’Keeffe’s time in Lake George I spoke with area residents who remembered O’Keeffe and Stieglitz or recalled stories about them passed down from their parents and grandparents.
One common recollection: Each morning during their visits to the lake, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe walked to Lake George Village from Oaklawn, a short distance north of town. Both dressed entirely in black and people in the village assumed this was the way all artists dressed. Stieglitz played miniature golf (still a popular Lake George Village attraction) with one or more friends. O’Keeffe didn’t join in, but waited and walked home with him after the games.
Information about O’Keeffe’s summers at the lake, I realized, could be easily worked into a mystery—but where to start? Long-lost O’Keeffe watercolors had surfaced in Canyon, Texas seventy years after she taught there. Wasn’t it possible that paintings could have been left behind at Lake George as well and discovered many years later in an attic or cellar?
Except, of course, those paintings couldn’t be the real thing. If I wanted O’Keeffe paintings to appear in my mystery, they’d have to turn out to be forgeries.
So it was back to the drawing board—in this case to the library—to learn about art forgery. I soon realized I’d stumbled onto another fascinating subject. According to experts, as many as 20% of art masterpieces may be forgeries. A clever forger works in the style of the artist he is copying and, by avoiding obvious slip-ups, such as using paint or canvas, which weren’t available during the artist’s lifetime, may be able to fool even a knowledgeable gallery owner.
As I studied the giant flowers, which were one of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects during her visits to the lake, I saw how easily they would lend themselves to forgery. O’Keeffe used no intricate backgrounds which would have been difficult to duplicate. She seldom signed her work, once snapping at someone who asked why she didn’t, “You don’t sign your face, do you?” And best of all for my purposes, she often painted a number of versions of the same flower, then destroyed any she wasn’t satisfied with.
Although her usual practice was to burn these rejects herself, it wasn’t hard to imagine a situation in which she turned the job over to someone else and the paintings escaped destruction and were hidden away and forgotten.
When Verna Suit, a fellow mystery writer, sent me a copy of Fake, Clifford Irving’s account of the bizarre adventures of art forger Elmyr de Hory, I knew I’d found the character I needed. With a few twists, de Hory became the prototype for Edward Maranville, the failed artist who is actually painting the fraudulent O’Keeffe works my protagonist, Ellen Davies, discovers.
Maranville, like de Hory, has never achieved recognition for his own work, but commands huge sums for his forgeries. A wild talker who loves to expound on art, he paints in a secret room in a magnificent Tudor mansion, a room filled with copies of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings not yet dry enough to crate and ship to their new owners.
When Ellen, who’s come to Lake George to write about the artist, enters this room, she thinks she’s found long-lost O’Keeffe paintings, which like the Canyon Suite watercolors are worth millions—definitely something any self-respecting villain would kill for. But she soon uncovers the truth and must think fast if she is to escape with her life.
Shortly after I completed the book, I made a startling discovery. The National Gallery of Art determined that the paper in the twenty-eight Canyon Suite watercolors was not available in 1916 and O’Keeffe could not have painted them. Several theories have been advanced as to where these paintings came from and how they were misattributed, but no definite conclusions have been reached. Sometimes a real-life mystery can’t be solved as easily as a fictional one.
An Affinity for Murder, A Lake George Mystery, won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant in 1999, the Oak Tree Press Dark Oak Award in 2000 and was a Malice Domestic Best First Mystery Finalist in 2002. To read more about Anne White’s book, An Affinity for Murder, A Lake George Mystery, or to purchase a copy, click here.
Beneath the Surface, the second in the Lake George Mystery series, published by Hilliard and Harris, is available from the publisher, in bookstores and on the Internet. When Loren Graham, the young mayor of Emerald Point, stumbles on the remains of a beautiful teenager, missing for a year, she is caught up in a mystery, which shocks the sleepy, little town and almost costs Loren her life. To read more about Anne White’s book, Beneath the Surface, or to purchase a copy, click here.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Mystery Readers Journal.
–Anne White is a special contributor to The Free George.
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