About the Work of Art:

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)
Ranchos Church, New Mexico, 1930–31
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1971.16

 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Ranchos Church, New Mexico, 1930-31, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1971.16

 

 

 

 

This eighteenth-century Spanish mission church sits near the Sangre de Christo Mountains, below which lies a large, fertile plain and the Rio Grande. The Pueblo Indians have occupied the region for nearly a thousand years. The first Spanish explorers arrived in northern New Mexico in 1540 to convert the natives to Catholicism and occupy reliable agricultural lands. The village of Ranchos de Taos was settled by the Spanish in 1716. The Ranchos church, San Francisco de Asis, was completed in 1815. It is an example of Franciscan Old World architectural ideals combined with New World building techniques.

The Ranchos church became a favorite theme among artists visiting the area in the early part of the twentieth century, especially photographers Paul Strand and Ansel Adams and painters Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin. Although many artists concentrated on the façade, most chose to depict the simple shapes of the apse, with its buttresses, at the back of the church. Their images have helped make this view an icon of New Mexican religious buildings.

As O’Keeffe became familiar with a subject, she continually condensed and eliminated what she saw to create wonderfully abstract images. For her Ranchos church series, O'Keeffe's approach was unique:

Through color and brush stroke she stresses the identification between the adobe of the church and the ground on which it sits—and of which it is made. The organic quality in the swelling, irregular planes of the building suggests a natural origin for the monument, rather than a built one. O’Keeffe’s paintings of the little mission church evoke a faith that is rooted in the native soil.

The Ranchos church is made of adobe. For O'Keeffe this must have been more like painting a landscape than an architectural form. Her nearly monochromatic palette serves to unite the ground with the building and further identifies it as a natural form silhouetted against a cloudy sky.

More than forty years after she created her paintings of the adobe church, O’Keeffe wrote:

The Ranchos de Taos Church is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it—the back several times, the front once. I finally painted a part of the back thinking with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church. I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could. And I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.


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