Georgia O'Keeffe in Hawaii, 1939. Copyright: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
It took Georgia O'Keeffe 9 days to travel the 5,000 miles from New York’s Grand Central Station and the Hawaiian Island of O’hau. Although she was hearolded by local newspapers upon her arrival as ‘the famous painter of flowers,’ the impetus for her trip was a different sort of plant life. O’Keeffe was in Hawaii to paint a pineapple.
At least, that was what Dole, then known as the Hawaiian Pineapple company hoped that she would do. An advertising firm had approached O’Keeffe in 1938 proposing an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii. After which time the painter would deliver Dole two canvases for use in a national advertising campaign. O’Keeffe was to determine the subject of these works herself. Although Time Magazine described O’Keeffe in 1940 as the least commercial artist in the US, in reality the artist had long dabbled in corporate commissions. One of her earliest jobs was in Chicago where she drew lace designs for fashion advertisements. Despite her previous project it took O’Keeffe some convincing to accept Dole’s proposal, but she eventually gave in, perhaps because the offer had come at precisely the right time.
O’Keeffe was then 51 years old, living full time in New Mexico while her beloved husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz remained in New York. His ongoing affair with the much younger Dorothy Norman weighed heavily on O’Keeffe who had suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1930’s and was hospitalized for months afterwards. Equally troubling was an increasingly lackluster response to her work. Critics had begun to decry her emphasis on desert landscapes and motifs as nothing more than a kind of mass production. So a change of scenery came with a particular kind of appeal, and at first O’Keeffe’s visit to the Hawaiian islands proceeded smoothly. She arrived in Honolulu and was immediately enchanted by the pineapple fields. Astonished by the beauty, she described them as “all sharp and silvery, stretching out for miles to the beautiful, irregular mountains.” She asked for a residence near the plantation so that she could paint the pineapples more easily. But Dole’s answer put a damper on her original good spirits. The company denied her request on the grounds that it would be unfitting for a woman to live among the laborers. Hoping to calm her down, presented the artist with a gift of a pealed, sliced pineapple; but O’Keeffe flatly refused to paint it. Dismissing the fruit as manhandled.
Florence Henri, Still Life with Pineapple and Cactus, 1931. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Instead, O’Keeffe set off across Hawaii, spending just over two months between the various islands. On Maui, in the isolated town of Hana, she stayed with the Jennings family. Willis Jennings, who managed the local sugar plantation, enlisted his twelve year old daughter Patricia to show the artist around. Now in her 80’s Patricia remembers being terrified to meet the infamous artist, who scandalized the world years earlier when she had posed nude for Stieglitz. But during the 10 days the pair spent together, exploring an abandoned rubber plantation and the seven pools of Oahu Gulch, the intimidating artist softened. Years later, O’Keeffe would write Patricia a letter recalling their time together. “Of course, I will always remember you as a little girl, a very lovely little girl, in a sort of dream world.” O’Keeffe also spent hours conversing with the personable Mr. Jennings. Joking in a letter to Stieglitz that, by the time she left Hawaii, she would know more about sugar than about pineapples.
Hawaii No. 2 , 1939. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In her accounts of the trip, she recounts eating raw fish for the first time and dawning the local footwear, although the straw and wooden sandals hurt at first, she soon got the hang of it. O’Keeffe was mesmerized by Hawaii’s black-faced cliffs and even painting a few images of them. But she was unnerved by the active volcanoes, issuing steam straight from the ground - and finally on April 13, 1939, it was time to leave. When O’Keeffe returned to New Mexico she immediately fell ill and was not able to deliver the paintings to Dole until the summer, When she finally did in that summer, the company received one rendition of a striking red flower, known as the lobster claw heliconia and another of a lone papaya tree in front of a misty green mountain range, but their was nary a pineapple in sight. Dole was not pleased, in a last-ditch effort the company shipped a pineapple plant from Hawaii to O’Keeffe’s doorstep in just 36 hours. Grudgingly, she admitted, it intrigued her, she had’’t realized, she said later, that the pineapples grew from the center of the plant’s spiky blades. The resulting painting featured a budding pineapple plant, the miniature fruit recreated in strokes of bright pink and delicate green. Dole, elated, ran the advertisement in Vogue and the Saturday Evening Post. For her part, O’Keeffe would visit Hawaii at least once more before she died. From its lush, verdant valleys to its stark black arches against a vivid blue sea, everything in Hawaii was diametrically opposed to the pastel desert landscapes that were O’Keeffe’s signature. But these Hawaiian paintings, as one critic noted, in a 1940’s show of the work, testified to O’Keeffe’s ability to make herself at home, anywhere.