Many artists have struggled to convey the spirit of the American nation in its totality. So various are the elements that make up the United States, it is difficult to find a symbol that aptly embodies them all. While the Regionalist painters of the 20th century chose to relish in the country’s agricultural fertility, American scene painters like Edward Hopper battled the hard truths of modern urban life. However, in Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, Georgia O’Keeffe creates a work that rises above this patchwork of shallow variation. Her Cow’s Skull aptly symbolises the many elements that form the United States, contrasts and all.
In 1930 Georgie O’Keeffe witnessed a drought in the Southwest that resulted in the death of a great number of cattle, whose bones subsequently littered the landscape. Ironically, it was within this scene of death that O’Keeffe saw the desert landscape take on a new life. By portraying the skull of a cow, rather than the animal itself, O’Keeffe creates a symbol of endurance. The animal to whom the skull belonged is long dead, and the skull itself is worn, but the image presented by O’Keeffe is still strong and powerful. Indeed, much like the skull, the nation about whom this painting obviously represents has proved resilient in the face of countless challenges.
This idea of powerful resilience in the face of suffering and hardship is also suggested by Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue through the clear allusion in the shape of the skull to that of Christ on the cross. Within this morbid allusion, and due to her use of a skull, O’Keeffe’s work appears to symbolise not only the great resilience of the United States, but equally its culpability in producing suffering. O’Keeffe herself had lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, internal quests for equality of both races and sexes, and the bulk of the Cold War. It is therefore unsurprising that she would choose to convey both the lightest and darkest sides of this nation.
O’Keeffe even alludes to the contrasting elements of the United States through her use of colour, which clearly equates to the colours of the American flag. Whilst the bold red stripes down the two sides create a relatively aggressive or protective border, the calm gradient of blue and white is hugely gentle. Moreover, by creating this allusion to the American flag through colour, O’Keeffe places something highly natural (a cow’s skull) next to an image highly representative of human development (a flag). Thus, in a final homage to her nation, O’Keeffe juxtaposes America’s natural agricultural tradition with its unending quest to innovate.