O'Keeffe's Arboreal Portraits of D. H. Lawrence and Gerald Heard

by Brenda Mitchell, Ph.D.

Two largely ignored paintings from Georgia O'Keeffe's oeuvre, D. H. Lawrence Pine Tree and Gerald's Tree I, bring up several important issues concerning O'Keeffe's disguised portraits and her close relationships with literary figures. In both paintings O'Keeffe has portrayed male writers (men of culture) as trees, an apparent paradox from a woman linked to the world of nature by her contemporaries and even by the artist herself.[1] O'Keeffe once wrote: "I feel like a little plant that he [husband Alfred Stieglitz] has watered and weeded and dug around — and he seems to have been able to grow himself — without anyone watering or weeding or digging around him."[2] She later distanced herself from the world of culture, especially literature, declaring to painters Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, "I am quite illiterate."[3] Yet she lived at the center of American avant-garde art production, and included in her library were major works of philosophy and literature, as well as art theory by, among others, Clive Bell and Wassily Kandinsly (in whose Concerning the Spiritual in Art O'Keeffe would have encountered Theosophy). The apparent paradox begins to disappear when we recognize that her subjects in these paintings, British novelist D. H. Lawrence and Irish writer Gerald Heard themselves experienced ambivalence toward the world of culture, and that O'Keeffe's symbolic portrayals placed her squarely in the mainstream of American Modernism.

Although they have been discussed in the O'Keeffe literature, the portrait aspects of D. H. Lawrence Pine Tree and Gerald's Tree I have been overlooked.[4] While at first these images seem to have little in common, the subjects to which they refer shared important similarities: Like Toomer, Lawrence and Heard were writers interested in mysticism who traveled to New Mexico, and were strongly ambivalent to the world of industrial technology and culture. Toomer followed Gurdjieff; Lawrence was interested in Theosophy; and Heard was involved with Hinduism and Buddhism.

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"Gerald's Tree I" by Georgia O'Keeffe

Oil on canvas, 1937, 40" x 30 1/8". Gift of the Burnett Foundation. Copyright © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

During the late 1930s O'Keeffe met three writers at Ghost Ranch (a dude ranch that accepted guests) — Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood — each with significant interest in Eastern religions and metaphysics. Huxley and Heard were there in the summer of 1937, and Isherwood passed through on his way to California two years later. Heard had published The Source of Civilization two years earlier, and two years later, he published his ideas on the evolution of consciousness in Pain, Sex, and Time.

[5] O'Keeffe found Heard's footprints around the tree where he had been dancing, as well as a cryptic inscription he had etched into the earth at the base of the tree. "Gerald's Tree was one of many dead cedars out in the bare, red hills of Ghost Ranch," O'Keeffe wrote. A friend [Heard] visiting the Ranch that summer had evidently found it and from the footmarks I guessed he must have been dancing around the tree before I started to paint it. So I always thought of it as Gerald's Tree." [6] She painted two versions of the tree, indicating its importance to her.

In contrast to the dramatic nocturnal view of D. H. Lawrence Pine Tree, O'Keeffe has viewed the spiky dead cedar of Gerald's Tree I head-on in brilliant daylight against an orange mountain. Her description of Heard's behavior at the site hints that the tree may have marked a personal sacred space for both writer and painter. In fact, the shadow at the base of the tree resembles a figure of a man dancing, with his arms spread wide.

The fact that Gerald's Tree I depicts a dead cedar, rather than the "erect, alive" pine of the Lawrence portrait, probably carries symbolic meaning as well. Painted eight years after The Lawrence Tree, the dead tree may symbolize Heard's sense of impending destruction, for he was even more convinced than Lawrence that modern technological society was bound for collapse. While in Lady Chatterley's Lover Lawrence proposed nature as a refuge from technology, Heard's solution was to turn from the material world to the inner spiritual life. Given his spiritual leanings, it is possible that Heard was engaged in a kind of shamanic activity with regard to the dead cedar. According to Nevill Drury, trees, in the form of the World Tree and the Tree of Life, carry important symbolic meaning in shamanic religions, Norse mythology, and the Jewish mystical Kabbala [7]

Heard feared for the survival of civilization, predicting complete destruction if civilization did not take steps to save itself. Writing during the rise of fascism and Stalinism, Heard described the condition of contemporary culture as a "problem," "in crisis," and a "dilemma," if not caused, then exacerbated, by the use of technology to create armaments. These "crises" stemmed from Western culture's emphasis on the outer world of culture while neglecting the inner world (or the "extra-individuality" of humans, to use Heard's term). Heard called for the integration of these worlds in order to avert the coming disaster. Believing that Eastern cultures had set an example in the development of the "inner world," Heard proposed the practice of yoga as an empirical means of integrating inner human psychology and external society. He wrote:

Yoga solves the problem of the self-divided individual, that of the individual and society and that of consciousness and Life and indeed the universe, through the single solution of making the individual learn how to achieve knowledge of his extra-individuality.... Society is the macrocosm, the projection of its constituent psyches. When they are fissured, society is chaotic, anarchic. When the inner psychological conflict is resolved the outer order, social justice, economic health, result.[8]

Heard further developed his ideas on the evolution of consciousness in Pain, Sex and Time, published on the eve of World War II. Here he focuses on Eastern thought and Western mysticism and calls for psychic evolution using examples of mysticism throughout history. Once again proposing yoga as a method for achieving heightened consciousness, Heard also discusses extrasensory perception, telepathy, and clairvoyance, and concludes that the development of psychic powers is necessary to "save civilization." [9] Like Lawrence and Toomer, and to a certain extent even Stieglitz, Heard rejected Western technological society, which had produced one World War and was about to spawn another. His beliefs, which he likely discussed with O'Keeffe and others, supported the notion of the "artist as seer," or clairvoyant, who sees what others do not — as O'Keeffe the artist saw "photographically real" portraits that passed into the world unrecognized.

O'Keeffe also enjoyed playing jokes on "the men," as she called her art world contemporaries, and she enjoyed having secrets—knowing something about the meaning of a painting that no one else would discern. O'Keeffe's arboreal portraits expressed her admiration for these writers, and at the same time tweaked the noses of the art critics. For while critics trumpeted the female sexuality of her flowers, they did not notice the phallic imagery of the trees, nor did they recognize them as portraits. Georgia O'Keeffe was not just a woman of nature painting trees: She was a sophisticated artist participating in an intellectual dialogue with the artistic and philosophical issues occupying some of the most interesting thinkers of her generation.

Note: A version of this article was presented at the Midwest Art History Society Meeting, March 1994, and appeared as a chapter in "Music that Makes Holes in the Sky: Georgia O'Keeffe's Visionary Romanticism" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1996). I thank Sarah Burns and Katherine Manthorne for their help.

Brenda Mitchell

Brenda Mitchell, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Art History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her current research interests include Contemporary Japanese Art, Art and Identity, and Feminism in the Visual Arts. She has been the recipient of two teaching and research fellowships in the Center for Developmental Psychology and Psychiatry, School of Education, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan.

The Barrie Family Trust is most grateful to Professor Brenda Mitchell for her kind permission to republish excerpts from her article, "O'Keeffe's Arboreal Portraits of D. H. Lawrence and Gerald Heard," which originally appeared in Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2. (Autumn, 1998 - Winter, 1999), pp. 3-7. Text is Copyright © 1998 by Brenda M. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved. Professor Mitchell’s article is accessible online at JSTOR.

More on Gerald's Tree

by Professor Brenda M. Mitchell

O'Keeffe described this painting in her 1976 book Georgia O'Keeffe (The Viking Press, New York, plate #90) wherein she wrote that her "friend" had been dancing around it. There is another interesting piece of information in Georgia O'Keeffe: Selected Paintings and Works on Paper, published by the Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, 1986:

Plate #23: Gerald's Tree II — includes an exhibition history and provenance, a reference to Heard's 1937 visit to Ghost Ranch, and an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Stieglitz:

"I found this written on some hard smooth sand in the shade of a tree where he [Gerald Heard] had been walking —

Do not act as though                    Know that you
you were in the                 be         are in the presence
                                                      and you will "

That was the cryptic message she found, with its unusual spacing.

A response from The Barrie Family Trust: The "Do not act" admonition is a typical Heardian warning. Heard frequently and over time used the term "Presence" to indicate the transcendent, ultimate Reality. The phrases "Know" and "and you will" are quintessential Heardian resolutions peppered with encouragement. O'Keeffe's testimony thus bears the unmistakable ring of authenticity. Heard must have been in a heightened state of ecstasy at the time when he interacted with this tree, the desert, and his deity.

"More on Gerald's Tree" used by kind permission of Professor Brenda M. Mitchell. Copyright © 2007 by Brenda M. Mitchell. All rights reserved.


[1] Anthropologist Sherry Ortner's essay, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" in Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Woman, Culture, and Society (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University, 1974, 67-87), provided a point of departure for some of my interpretations of O'Keeffe's arboreal portraits of male writers. Ortner defined "culture" as a "special sort of process in the world." She further explained that women were identified with "nature," which every culture devalues as being of a lower order than "culture." O'Keeffe and the subjects of her portraits, Jean Toomer, D. H. Lawrence, and Gerald Heard, all shared an ambivalence about the superiority of "culture" even while "generating and sustaining systems of meaningful forms (symbols, artifacts, etc.) by means of which humanity transcends the givens of natural existence."

[2] Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 19871, 183.

[3] Ibid., 222.

[4] Charles Eldredge discusses D. H. Lawrence Pine Tree in Georgia O'Keeffe: American and Modern (New Haven: Yale University, 1993) 198, 219. Because the painting was originally exhibited as Pine Tree with Stars at Brett's, Eldredge identifies it as an homage to O'Keeffe's friend Lady Dorothy Brett, who stayed in New Mexico after the Lawrences returned to Europe. According to Eldredge, "Titles of O'Keeffe's works often changed over time, a circumstance that complicates research.... The alterations in nomenclature occasionally were made by her, but more often by others." He quotes the artist: "I don't put names on them. I never do." I believe that this statement, together with the fact that O'Keeffe used the title The Lawrence Tree in her 1976 book, invalidates the Eldredge identification. O'Keeffe may not have given the painting its original title. In addition, O'Keeffe mentioned the painting in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1929, referring to it as "that tree in Lawrences front yard as you see it when you lie under it on the table"; Cowart, Hamilton, Greenough, Art and Letters, 192.

[5] Gerald Heard, The Source of Civilization (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935), and Pain, Sex and Time (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939). [Pain, Sex and Time was reissued in 2004 by Monkfish Book Publishing.]

[6] Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Viking, 1976), n.p.

[7] Nevill Drury, The Elements of Shamanism (Dorset, Eng.: Element Books, 1989), 24.

[8] Heard, The Source of Civilization, 235.

[9] Heard, Pain, Sex and Time, 261.

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In this distinguished photograph, taken by world-renowned photographer Ansel Adams, Ms. O'Keeffe, graced with an enigmatic half-smile, is captured painting "Gerald's Tree."

"Georgia O'Keeffe painting in her car, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, 1937": Photograph by Ansel Adams. Copyright © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of the Center for Creative Photography.


"O'Keeffe found Heard's footprints around the tree where he had been dancing, as well as a cryptic inscription he had etched into the earth at the base of the tree."