About Georgia O'Keeffe's "Black Iris"

by Robert Paxton

The "Black Iris" collection of paintings can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Georgia O'Keeffe was a groundbreaking 20th century painter. She began painting young, when she was still a teenager, but put it aside to work as a commercial artist and teach. During the 1920s, however, she began to produce some of her masterpieces, such as the series of paintings called "Black Iris," which would astound the world with their detailed, technical proficiency and magnification as well as their apparently sexual imagery. The "Black Iris" paintings are presently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


"Black Iris" is notable for its colors. O'Keeffe used a graded color scheme that ranged from a deep purple that is almost black at points to soft pink. The bloom of the black iris, though greatly enlarged by the painting's magnification, remains delicate and organic to the viewer because of this great attention to shading.


As with many of her other paintings from this same time period, "Black Iris" is a painting of a greatly magnified flower. This was a trademark detail in O'Keeffe's work. The technique is remarkable because of how it increases the visual power of something previously painted by other artists in bunches or at a distance. Here, the delicate flower is a gigantic, powerful organism.

Sexual Imagery

Critics were shocked at what they saw as a barely latent display of female genitalia in works like "Black Iris." Some claimed that this was a purposeful attempt to interpret visually some of the Freudian sexual psychology theories that were popular during the 1920s. Others recognize that "Black Iris" was simply meant to enchant the viewer with the beauty of nature. O'Keeffe denied any sexual associations in her paintings.

Nature vs. Industrialization

Some critics have seen in O'Keeffe's work an attempt to defy the rising industrialization of American society that was occurring during the "Roaring '20s." To these reviewers, the possible sexual content is insignificant compared to the way magnification made tiny, fragile representatives of the natural world equal to the towering skyscrapers that were ascending into the skylines of America's big cities. O'Keeffe began painting urban landscapes the same year that she painted "Black Iris," so this may be confirmation of her real interest in confronting the industrial world.

About the Author

Robert Paxton has been writing professionally since 2002 when he published his first novel. He has also published short stories and poems and writes ad copy for various websites. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in creative writing. Paxton is a trained Montessori instructor who has taught at both the elementary and the secondary levels.

Photo Credits

  • George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images