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Pelvis with Pedernal

On view

Pelvis with Pedernal

Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986)

Date: 1943
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 16 x 22in. (40.6 x 55.9cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 50.19
Label Text
Georgia O'Keeffe painted several versions of pelvis bones she found during her walks in the New Mexican desert, where she lived for decades. She stated: "When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones - what I saw through them - particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one's world."


Text Entries

Pelvis with Pedernal is one of a series of seven pelvis paintings shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, early in 1944. The exhibition also included twelve works depicting enlarged flowers and views of the New Mexico landscape.(1)

Desert mountains and cleansed, whitewashed bones had been part of O’Keeffe’s oeuvre since 1930, when she first stayed in New Mexico. Years later she recalled that summer sojourn:

I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven’t known how. I always think that I cannot stay with it long

enough. So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than the animals walking around—hair, eyes and all with their tails switching. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable—and knows no kindness with all its beauty.(2)

In these paintings the bones, mostly skulls, are shown head on; in contrast, the pelvises are seen from various viewpoints, in such a way as to bring forth a strong and tense relationship between the main image and background.

In Pelvis with Pedernal tensions are created through color contrasts between blues and siennas, and by a strong diagonal that leads the eye from the enlarged pelvis to the distant mountain.

The Pedernal, the flat-topped mesa in the background of the painting, first appeared in O’Keeffe’s work of 1936. She painted it many times with hills, flowers, the moon, and the stars against the blue or gray sky.(3) At one time she joked: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”(4) For her 1944. exhibition O’Keeffe wrote:

A pelvis bone has always been useful to any animal that has it—quite as useful as a head I suppose. For years in the country the pelvis bones lay about the house indoors and out—always underfoot—seen and not seen as such things can be—seen in many different ways. I do not remember picking up the first one but I remember from when I first noticed them always knowing I would one day be painting them. . . .

So probably—not having changed much—when I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones—-what I saw through them- particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world-

They were most wonderful against the Blue—that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.

I have tried to paint the Bones and the Blue.(5)

O’Keeffe’s symbolism consisted of using a part to represent the whole: bones indicating life; pedernal representing death.(6)  Thus in this painting by simply juxtaposing two images she not only referred to World War II then in progress, but also to the past as well as to the future, and in the long run to man’s insignificant place in the “blue” universe.



1. Daniel Catton Rich, “The New O’Keeffes,“ Magazine ofArt, vol. 37 (March 1944), pp. 110-11.

2. Katherine Hoffman, An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984.), p. 78. By home, O’Keeffe meant Stieglitz’s country house at Lake George, New York.

3. Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: Seaview Books, 1980), p. 235.

4. Ibid.

5. Georgia O’Keeffe, in Anita Pollitzer, A Woman on Paper: Georgia O’Keefe (New York: Touchstone/Simon Schuster, 1988), p. 239.

6. Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint. Lisle in Portrait of an Artist, p. 235, notes that this particular mountain contained a flint deposit the Indians used for arrowheads, and that it was the proverbial birthplace of the Navaho’s “Changing Woman,” a goddess of the rites of passage, especially those of women.


© Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY