Georgia O’Keeffe began her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905 and later moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League. She worked both as a commercial artist and teacher in Texas and South Carolina before returning to New York to enroll at the Columbia Teachers College. There, she studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, whose teaching method advocated that artists fill space in a beautiful way.
In 1916, photographer and New York gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz began to exhibit O’Keeffe’s work, successfully promoting her as an artist. They married in 1924. Stieglitz’s stable of artists included not only O’Keeffe, but Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, all pioneers in the development of abstraction in the United States between 1910 and 1920.
O’Keeffe’s close interaction with nature formed the essence and core of her production. In 1929, she began to spend summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and, following Stieglitz’s death in 1946, made her move there permanent. In New Mexico, her work combined recognizable subjects with abstract compositions that explore the grandeur and vacancy of the landscape. She based her still-life paintings on objects she owned, like the human skull she found in an arroyo in New Mexico.(1) In this painting, the juxtaposition of the skull with the broken ceramic shards of a pot creates an elegiac meditation on mortality.
(1) The O'Keeffe catalogue raisonné notes that the skull was given to O'Keeffe by her friend John Candelaria, on the basis of Stieglitz-O'Keeffe correspondence. Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), vol. 2, 651. However, in a 7 September 1974 Sacramento Union article, titled "Nature, Broken and Dead, is Still Art" by Corinne Geeting, the author notes that O'Keeffe told her that "I found the skull in an arroyo where it had probably washed down some distance from the hills."