The next time you gaze upon Lake George, that sapphire of crystal-clear water set deeply among Adirondack mountains and trees, think for a moment about how the scene looked to Georgia O’Keeffe.
For 17 years, from 1918 until 1934, the famous American artist lived for part of the year on the western side of the lake, just north of Lake George village.
She rowed along the shore. She hiked up Prospect Mountain. She planted flowers and corn, gathered leaves and picked apples and pears. And she painted for hours in her Lake George studio, a restored barn she called The Shanty.
“I wish you could see this place. There’s something so perfect about the lake and the trees,” O’Keeffe wrote to her friend Sherwood Anderson in 1923.
For more than decade, Erin B. Coe, chief curator at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, had fielded phone calls from people wondering if they could see O’Keeffe’s studio on the Lake George estate of Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and art promoter who was O’Keeffe’s husband and soulmate.
But there was nothing to see. The 35-acre estate was long ago replaced by motels, hotels, private homes and restaurants. There was no evidence that the artist had ever been in Lake George.
“It’s what I call the disappearing history. It’s vanished. It’s been wiped out,” says Coe.
For Coe, the turning point came in 2009, when she saw the exhibit “Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
“I was really struck by some paintings that O’Keeffe had done that were related to Lake George. I had never seen them before. It was another eye-opening moment.”
On Saturday, after four years of research by Coe and the onerous task of borrowing more than 50 paintings by a 20th century icon, “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” will open at the Hyde. The ground-breaking show was curated by Coe and Barbara Buhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M. After a three-month run at the Hyde, the show will travel to the Santa Fe museum and then to San Francisco. “Modern Nature” is the first Hyde exhibit to travel in the museum’s 50-year history.
“There’s never been an exhibition on the subject of O’Keeffe and Lake George,” says Coe.
But why? O’Keeffe’s Lake George years were among the most prolific and transformative of her seven-decade career, a time when she created more than 200 paintings on canvas and paper, in addition to sketches and pastels.
“It’s complicated,” says Coe. “It has a lot to do with her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz.
“When you are dealing with Lake George, you are to a certain extent, dealing with Stieglitz, and that story can become very emotional and personal,” she says. “And that story has been done and done very well at The Phillips Collection” a Washington D.C. art museum.
In “Modern Nature,” Coe purposefully detaches O’Keeffe from Stieglitz to focus purely on the female artist’s organic and adventurous observations of Lake George. Coe, who curated the extremely popular 2005 exhibit “Lake George: 1774-1900” at the Hyde, was also interested in the geography and ecology of the lake.
“It’s about a woman and a place, an artist and a place,” Coe says.
“You are going to see collectively, 58 paintings very much connected to Lake George, many of them for the first time in one room.”
“Modern Nature” opens with five abstractions she painted in 1918 and 1919.
Special events linked to exhibit
The Hyde Collection and Adirondack Theatre Festival have scheduled programs and events to complement the exhibit “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George.”
Here are some highlights. For a complete list, go to www.hydecollection.org.
-- June 30: Lecture, “O’Keeffe: Abstraction and Nature,” Dr. Bruce Robertson, art history professor and co-author of “Georgia O'Keeffe and Abstraction.” 2 p.m. Free with admission.
-- July 11-13, July 17-20: World premiere play, “Filming O’Keeffe” by Eric Lane, commissioned by Adirondack Theatre Festival, at Charles R. Wood Theater, Glens Falls. For ticket prices and show times, phone 874-0800 or go to www.ATFestival.org.
-- July 21: Lecture, “When is a Lily not just a Lily? O’Keeffe and Art by Women in the 1920s,” Gwendolyn Owens of McGill University, author of exhibit’s catalog essay. 2 p.m. Free with admission.
-- Aug. 9-10: Reading, “Faraway Nearest One: Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, O’Keeffe to Stieglitz, A Reading of the Letters,” by actors Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings, Charles R. Wood Theater, Glens Falls. 7:30 p.m. $50.
-- Aug. 25: Lecture, “O’Keeffe and Steiglitz: Lovers, ‘Frenemies’ and Enduring Partners,” Lisa Mintz Messinger, author of “Georgia O’Keeffe” and “Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe.” 2 p.m. Free with admission. Reservations required.
-- Sept. 15: Lecture, “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” Erin B. Coe, chief curator at The Hyde Collection. 2 p.m. Free with admission. Reservations required.
“You start with these first impressions that she had, so you can see through her eyes,” says Coe.
Then the paintings are divided into five distinct themes: landscapes, barns and buildings, gardens, trees, and Lake George souvenirs, a cluster of O’Keeffe’s leaf pictures.
“I nicknamed them “souvenirs” because she kind of collected them,” Coe says.
Throughout the exhibit, there are quotes from O’Keeffe.
“Rather than me talking to visitors, interpreting themes, I’m letting O’Keeffe speak,” Coe says.
In Barns and Buildings, we’ll see “My Shanty,” a 1922 oil painting of her Lake George workspace and “Lake George Barns” from 1926.
“Of course, her barn pictures are famous,” says Coe. “She painted barns not only in Lake George for the first time ever, she painted barns in Canada. So Lake George becomes sort of an instrument for a whole new subject, a whole new vision.”
The garden section captures her paintings of apples, pears, petunias and corn.
O’Keeffe kept a garden at Lake George, and wrote about it in her 1976 autobiography.
“We don’t have a poppy,” says Coe, because it was too difficult to borrow those images.
There are many “tree portraits,” along with a quote in which the artist talks about her fascination with a certain birch tree along the lake.
“To see the tree at its best, I was up early and out in the rowboat under the trees as the sun came up over the mountains,” O’Keeffe wrote.
She grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and Coe believes this experience colored her Lake George images.
“She’s an agrarian kid. That was her mental universe. It didn’t leave her,” Coe explains. “Going to Lake George allowed her to explore those agrarian roots, to connect to that part of herself. She was very interested in agriculture and horticulture. And she had a way of looking at the world through those eyes, almost in a very ecological way.”
“Modern Nature” looks at the interplay between the visible world and the abstract world in O’Keeffe’s early work.
“The representational world that she encountered in Lake George ended up feeding or interacting with her nonobjective work, her nonrepresentational work. It’s a very important part of the Lake George years,” Coe says.
“Modern Nature” also confronts the long-standing view that O’Keeffe left Lake George behind in her later years. Stieglitz died in 1946, and O’Keeffe buried his ashes at an unknown place along Lake George. In 1949, she moved permanently to New Mexico, where she lived until her death in 1986 at age 98.
“There’s this tendency that I’ve detected over the years, in the scholarship of O’Keeffe, that the Lake George years and the New Mexico years were these two separate things. This exhibition is challenging that to a certain extent. Because we don’t really live our lives that way. Things stay with us,” Coe says.
“She looked back on Lake George as a place. She definitely had the ability to separate Stieglitz from it, and look at it, and recall it as a place that triggered certain associations for her. There were landmarks on the property that she had very fond feelings for.”
While Stieglitz is not part of “Modern Nature,” there is a smaller exhibit, “The Family Album: Alfred Stieglitz and Lake George,” which will be unveiled in the Hoopes Gallery.
With permission from the Stieglitz family, the Hyde scanned the only known map of the property, which is hand-drawn.
“That exhibition will have the map, it will have photographs that show the family and people who lived in Lake George when the Stieglitz family was there,” Coe says.
Recently, there has been a local grass-roots campaign to recognize O’Keeffe’s connection to Lake George.
Last summer, a group of residents led by graduate student Sarah Rodman had a blue and gold state historical marker erected on Route 9N, at the edge of the former Stieglitz property, which is now The Inn on The Hill.
“They want people to know the story, they want the area to become better known as “O’Keeffe Country,” says Coe. “The marker is a first step in reclaiming that history.”
For Coe, curating “Modern Nature” became nearly archaeological, as she tried to retrace O’Keeffe’s life along the lake. She tapped into the ecology of the region, too, talking to experts about the trees and flowers.
“I am still making new discoveries all the time, which is what happens with a project like this. There’s never really an end to it.”