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The Lawrence Tree  (Oriented Correctly)


One of Georgia O'Keeffe's most evocative paintings is "The Lawrence Tree".  But your appreciation of the work may be dimmed somewhat if you view it as presented 95% of the time on the web:  Upside down!

I first saw the painting years ago during the hugely successful retrospective of her work at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Seeing it from a distance, I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at, but when I got close enough to see the title, everything clicked.  And my understanding of the work points to the problem that some curators and art teachers have with it.

As a youngster, I was lucky enough to spend many nights sleeping in California's Sierra Nevada forests.  If you've ever stretched out under a towering lodgepole pine and gazed up at a starry sky, this is what you'll see, if your head is towards the trunk of the tree -- the trunk coming into your field of vision from the "top".  And it is something you don't often experience in eastern forests, because the canopy is often too thick.

Can I be positive that's what Georgia O'Keeffe experienced?  Keep on reading, but that's what you do out west:  You lie in the forest at night, hear the quiet hiss of the breeze in the pine needles above you, and contemplate the celestial sphere.  You don't stand there facing the tree, as the two smaller images below would have you situated.

Correct orientation

The most common incorrect orientation

Another incorrect orientation


How did this all come about?  I'm not sure, but according to one posting, the painting hung incorrectly for years:

"From 1979 to 1989 the Wadsworth Anthneum [sic*] in Hartford, Connecticut hung The Lawrence Tree by O'Keeffe upside down. In 1990 the piece joined a traveling O'Keeffe retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Exhibition officials researching the work discovered letters from O'Keeffe complaining that the work had been hung the wrong way in an exhibition in 1931. The manner she described matched the same manner that the Wadsworth used to hang the painting. After the exhibition completed, Wadsworth hung the painting the way O'Keeffe had intended."  

(* It is interesting to note that even in the website commenting about the painting's orientation, the author misspells the name of the institution:  The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.  Also, the dates cited above are incorrect.  The exhibition Georgia O'Keeffe: 1887-1986 toured from November 1987 through February 1989, visiting Washington, DC, Chicago, Dallas, and New York.)

The Lawrence in "The Lawrence Tree" is author D.H. Lawrence.  He had a ranch near Taos, New Mexico, and O'Keeffe visited.  In her words:

  "...There was a long weathered carpenter's bench under the tall tree in front of the little old house that Lawrence had lived in there. I often lay on that bench looking up into the tree...past the trunk and up into the branches. It was particularly fine at night with the stars above the tree."

But the most authoritative source regarding the painting's orientation is O'Keeffe herself, in two letters included in the National Gallery's catalog:

"I had one particular painting -- that tree in Lawrences front yard as you see it when you lie under it on the table -- with stars -- it looks as tho it is standing on its head..." (Letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan from Taos, August 1929.)

"...I also got a painting of the big pine tree as you see it lying on that table under it at night -- it looks as tho it is standing on its head with all the stars around -- Pretty good -- for me..."  (Letter to Rebecca Strand [James] while on train from New Mexico to New York, 24 August 1929.)

See how the upper presentation captures that almost dizzying perspective.  The other orientations turn the tree trunk into -- well -- a tree trunk.  What is crazy is that there are websites for students showing the incorrect orientation.  One of them asks: 

1. Describe:  What is happening in this picture?  Does the credit line say that helps you understand this picture?  From what point of view is the picture painted? 

2. Analyze:  What do the colors make you feel about this subject? What mood do the colors give the painting?

3. Interpret:  Write about what memories this picture reminds you of.  How does it make you feel?

4. Judgment:  What do you think makes this artwork special?  Why do you think O’Keeffe chose to paint this tree in this way? 

How much more meaningful would questions 1, 3, and 4 be if the web page authors actually knew which way was up for the painting?

A dissenting voice?   A couple of years ago I exchanged e-mails with a retired professor of art.  He had seen this page, but maintained that my conclusions were incorrect.  He cited some later writings by O'Keefe in reference to the upcoming publication of "The Lawrence Tree" in  a book.  This puzzled me, since O'Keefe's own writings around the time when she had completed the painting (and cited above) seemed to make the question of orientation clear.  Eventually, however, I think I figured things out:  When published in a book (seen much smaller than the original painting) orientation becomes less important.  In a book, you're seeing a representation of the painting and the experience is nowhere near the same as when you encounter the painting itself.  Bluntly, it just doesn't matter that much, and the viewer will probably be a bit confused because a small reproduction of "The Lawrence Tree" doesn't resonate with our experiences looking at pictures of other trees in other books.  If you ever get the chance, see the real thing.