Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Spring’ Conservation Story | Art


Repainting, overpainting, water damage and cracks. These were the main problems affecting the painting of Georgia O’Keeffe Spring (1948) which the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s Curatorial Officer, Dale Kronkright, addressed during a two-year curatorial project.

The water damage, which eventually showed up as drips and cracks, occurred while it was still owned by O’Keeffe, who kept the painting from 1948 to 1963. Being an atypical painting by the artist, he was a hard sell, as his letters quoted below indicate. But O’Keeffe eventually sold him to a northern New Mexico rancher and his wife in 1963, with an agreement that they would loan him out to shows at his request.

In 1980, the painting was sold at auction at Sotheby’s and changed hands three or four times over the next three years. Further damage occurred and crude attempts were made to repair it.

Below is an overview of the damage, what was done to fix it, and what the conservation team revealed.

But first, a few thoughts on the composition itself.

Composition elements of Spring

Georgia O’Keeffe took four subjects – antlers, Pedernal Mountain, a vertebra, and desert primroses, all of which she had painted before but never all four together – and placed them in a spatial relationship. Although the painting is figurative, with elements of still life and landscape, it is an unrealistic, even surreal composition. The primroses and the vertebra, for example, float against the sky.

“O’Keeffe places things, orders things, colors things, crops and decides relative sizes, almost to prevent the viewer from creating an easy narrative,” Kronkright explains. “She takes these four subjects and places them in whole new relationships. The deer antlers that she painted before, somehow float in the air, like a vertical. In this case, she placed the antlers in the foreground at the very bottom and made them extremely tall. The antlers are firmly planted on the ground. One might suggest that they represent O’Keeffe herself, planting herself in New Mexico. She floated the vertebra like almost this global presence, high in the sky, so there are several horizon lines.

It would be the first and last time that O’Keeffe would bring all of these elements together in a single composition.

The first treatment, water damage, and the second treatment

The first documented treatment of Spring It was 1950. O’Keeffe sent the painting to his curator, Caroline Keck, in preparation for an exhibition at An American Place, the New York gallery founded by Alfred Stieglitz. “We have the treatment record, and it’s a really minor treatment,” Kronkright says. “She just stretches the canvas, which inevitably happens with a very large linen canvas, and washes away the paint.”

The water damage likely occurred in the late 1950s at O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú. Water from a leaking roof wetted the back of the canvas and soiled the front of the canvas and caused the linen itself to swell, causing cracks. O’Keeffe made a concerted effort to have it repaired, again by Keck, in 1960. These are documented treatments by a professional restorer.

But, over a period of decades, drip lines began to appear.

Detail of the right section of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Spring showing drip lines before restoration (left) and after cleaning and painting (right); courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

“In the upper right corner, you can see the drip lines and stains from water damage,” Kronkright explains. “Areas that appear light show painting done by Keck in the early 1960s. Over time, areas that have not been painted begin to appear darker, while the restoration paints begin to appear lighter. The reason for this is that some of the artist’s original pigments, when mixed with oils, become noticeably darker over time as they lose opacity and become more translucent.This is a natural process of some white pigments in oil.

Part of the investigation of the treatments applied to the painting over the years was to deconstruct the conservation work of which the museum was aware, as it was a matter of record, and the conservation efforts that n had not been documented.


After the painting was acquired by the O’Keeffe Museum in 1997, restorers noticed a creamy white, opaque finish. “O’Keeffe paints very intentionally, a heavy coat of paint,” Kronkright explains. “Wherever we saw this mottled whiteness, we saw two, sometimes three, layers of paint. It is very finely applied over this entire lower left part of the vertebra.

He describes it as crumbling paint, which is a thin layer of paint applied with a dry brush and a loose hand, which was not O’Keeffe’s typical technique. “Since 1997, we’ve been trying to figure out why would O’Keeffe do this? Why would she scribble it with a very opaque white and in this uncontrolled way?

Turns out she didn’t.

“We discovered that the entire upper half of the painting had been covered with this white paint in 1981, not by O’Keeffe and not with O’Keeffe’s permission. This is an undocumented treatment where someone one tries to cover the drip lines.

Examination of the paint under ultraviolet light revealed the extent of the overpaint. However, removing the chipped paint revealed damage to the paint itself.

The history of conservation

Georgia O’Keeffe UV Map Spring showing damage before treatment. Green areas indicate paint loss from the 1980s. Thin red lines indicate the location of actively heaving cracks. Blue lines show drip lines from the 1957 roof leak. Tan lines show crease locations from O’Keeffe’s first attempt to clean mud stains with sponges and cleaning solution ; courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Loss of paint

“We think someone glued another face-to-face paint and the paint was still wet and sticky,” says Kronkright. “When someone pulled them apart, it took the paint off. When we removed the lacquer paint, we could see these areas of paint loss, down to the canvas. »

In the years following his sale to a local breeder in 1963, Spring has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and several other venues.

“We have determined from documentation of the condition of each of these exhibits over a 10-year period that the condition has remained approximately the same.”

Then came the auction in 1980.

“What we infer from the physical evidence is that in 1980 the drip lines started to appear,” Kronkright says. “The restoration paints applied in the 1960s remained nice and white, but the original paints are starting to darken. So there’s this contrast that happens wherever there are drip lines. Plus, there’s that damage. We believe that at some point during this period between 1980 and 1983, a commercial gallery used white acrylic paint to repaint areas of paint loss.

The history of conservation

Georgia O’Keeffe’s lower left corner detail Spring showing open cracks before treatment (left) and after repair (right); courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum


Before attempting to repair open cracks in the paint that had naturally developed over time, the conservation team first needed to determine exactly where they were. They used a camera sensitive to infrared light, which is otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Infrared light passes through cracks faster and easier than it does through paint and allowed Kronkright to see which open cracks needed repair. “There were over 3,000 cracks in the bottom half of the board,” he said. “I put adhesive in the open cracks in a process called consolidation and rested them.”

Spring in the artist’s own words

The month after arriving in New Mexico in May 1948, O’Keeffe wrote to gallery owner Edith Halpert, saying, “I have a very large painting – 4 feet high – seven wide. I like it but I admit that it may seem weird to anyone but me. (Archives of the Smithsonian Institution of American Art 555025 802-1005 78).

The statement indicates that Spring was his first large-scale work completed in New Mexico.

In response to Halpert’s request for an exhibition of new works in 1950, which would Spring first public exhibition, O’Keeffe wrote, “My best painting is so unmanageable – 4 x 7 – so clean and difficult to maintain.” (Archives of the Smithsonian Institution of American Art 555025 802-1005.)

In a letter to New York art critic Henry McBride, dated July 19, 1948, O’Keeffe wrote: “This summer I have a large painting – four feet high – seven wide. [It] Looks fine to me where he is and so I think he’s going to stay here. It’s too big to be carried around town. No one would buy it. (Henry McBride Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.)


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