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Cow's Skull with Calico Roses

A work made of oil on canvas.
© The Art Institute of Chicago

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  • A work made of oil on canvas.




Georgia O’Keeffe
American, 1887–1986

About this artwork

In 1930 Georgia O’Keeffe witnessed a drought in the Southwest that resulted in the starvation of many animals, whose skeletons littered the landscape. She was fascinated by these bones and shipped a number of them back to New York City. She later wrote, “To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than the animals walking around… . The bones seem to cut more 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.” The bones provided her with interesting shapes and textures, and she painted them frequently, intrigued as much by their symbolism as by their formal potential.

In Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, O’Keeffe decorated the skull with artificial flowers, the kind used to adorn graves in New Mexico. Tucked against the ear and the jaw, the flowers appear less morbid than simply decorative—a whimsical addition that relies on the soft, ruffled petals to alleviate the hard, polished severity of the skull. O’Keeffe then exquisitely balanced the subtle modulations of the white and gray tones of the skull and flowers with a bold vertical streak of dark brown that irregularly bisects the composition. With the skull positioned against a muted, layered ground in close proximity to the picture plane, the composition conveys a sense of the organic yet abstracted beauty typical of O’Keeffe’s art.

On View

American Art, Gallery 265


Georgia O'Keeffe


Cow's Skull with Calico Roses


United States




Oil on canvas


91.4 × 61 cm (36 × 24 in.)

Credit Line

Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O'Keeffe

Reference Number



© The Art Institute of Chicago

Extended information about this artwork

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