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O'Keeffe conservation reveals hidden insight into painting
Georgia O'Keeffe. Storm Cloud, Lake George, 1923. Oil on canvas, 18 x 30 1/8 inches. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. [2007.1.18]

SANTA FE, NM.- New work by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s conservation department has revealed hidden insight into Georgia O’Keeffe’s dramatic 1923 oil painting, Storm Cloud, Lake George . For years, audiences and experts have assumed the painting represented a stormy night scene at Lake George, New York, where O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz regularly visited his family’s estate. Yet current conservation reveals that the painting actually depicts an afternoon tempest.

The painting recently returned to the O’Keeffe Museum after an international tour. As part of a routine condition assessment and minor repair work, it became evident that the painting’s varnish obscures surface details. A conservation process now underway will allow the painting to represent O’Keeffe’s original intentions.

“Museums are places of discovery,” says Dale Kronkright, Head of Conservation. “We do what O’Keeffe told us to do: ‘look closer’.” Upon detailed inspection and research, Kronkright realized that the layers of varnish applied to the painting over many years hid O’Keeffe’s original work. The shiny film--intended by previous caretakers to preserve the painting--had actually altered the appearance of the color and texture of O’Keeffe’s creation. Kronkright was thrilled at “…seeing her matte, opaque paint. This is not supposed to be saturated, dark, and translucent. What we see emerge is a completely different painting.” The revelation is also notable because researchers believe it to be Georgia O’Keeffe’s earliest known use of matte-textured paints.

Conservation is an integral part of the Museum’s mission to preserve and protect O’Keeffe’s artistic legacy, and it occurs constantly. Usually this scientific detective work takes place in the climate-controlled vault, away from the public eye. This summer, Museum visitors will have the rare opportunity to see the conservation of Storm Cloud, Lake George in progress. Beginning this month, the partially conserved painting will be on view in the Museum’s galleries, giving audiences a chance to compare the different areas of the work, with and without varnish. It is unusual for museums to present works undergoing conservation in progress. The split-textured Storm Cloud, Lake George will be on exhibition June 27 through October 28. After that time, it will return to the lab for Kronkright to complete its treatment.

Once finished, the fully restored Storm Cloud, Lake George will be on regular view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Accompanying it will be interactive exhibition materials about the project’s merge of art, history, and science.

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