O’KEEFFE AT LAKE GEORGE
By Anne White
I chose the setting for An Affinity For Murder,
the first book in my Lake George Mystery Series, I knew I’d
have an abundance of background material to draw on. The upstate
New York lake and its environs, once seen along with Lake Champlain
as the crossroads of the continent, boast a rich and colorful
history. In fact, 2005 kicks off the region’s bicenquinquagenary,
a fancy word for a five-year-long commemoration of the French
and Indian War, now considered by many scholars the crucible
of the American Revolution.
in present day concerns with ecology, tourism and the environment
and Lake George offers even more grist for the mystery writing
mill. But, for me, one fact about the lake proved most intriguing.
Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the twentieth century’s
greatest artists, spent fifteen summers—often extended
summers—at Lake George and found inspiration for many of
her best-loved paintings there.
a native of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, made her way to northern
New York by a circuitous route. One of seven children in a farm
family, she had seen herself from an early age as an artist,
even recalling her fascination with the play of light and shadow
on the coverings in her crib. She studied at several art schools
in the east and in 1916 accepted a job as head of the art department
at a small college in Canyon, Texas.
teaching in Texas, O’Keeffe corresponded with Alfred Stieglitz,
a New York City art impresario. Stieglitz, who deplored the influence
of the French on American art, responded to the simplicity of
O’Keeffe’s drawings. Although he was a force in the
New York art world, his relationship with the unknown artist
got off to a rocky start when he displayed her watercolors without
her permission in his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue and called
her Virginia O’Keeffe in the bargain.
immediate reaction was to insist he dismantle the exhibit, but
he quickly won her over by his enthusiasm for her work. They
became friends and, soon afterward, lovers. In 1918 she accompanied
Stieglitz for the first time to his family’s summer home,
Oaklawn, on Lake George 200 miles upstate.
her annual visits there with Stieglitz, O’Keeffe drew inspiration
from her surroundings to paint panoramic views of the lake and
mountains, and close-up studies of individual objects, trees,
flowers and rustic buildings.
“I wish you could see the place here,” she wrote to
her friend, author Sherwood Anderson. “There is something
so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees… It
is really lovely.”
massive flower paintings she created during her time at Lake
George came to be seen as some of her richest, most powerful
images. Flowers were thought to be an appropriate subject for
women, but O’Keeffe, always quick to defy convention, made
hers huge in size. “Nobody sees a flower—it is so
small—we haven’t time. I’ll paint it big and
they will be surprised into taking time to look at it,” she
said and compared her flowers to tall buildings going up.
her flowers were nothing like buildings; they were sensual, erotic
even, although O’Keeffe never acknowledged this characterization
of them or credited the sexual interpretations others made of
them. The nude photographs of her Steiglitz took and exhibited
during this period were seen by many to show striking similarities
to her flower paintings, especially the Black Iris III, thought
by many experts to be the most exquisite of all.
she was attaining recognition as an artist during these years,
life at Oaklawn often proved difficult for O’Keeffe. The
gregarious Stieglitz enjoyed the steady influx of guests and
encouraged talk and intellectual discussions. O’Keeffe
longed for privacy and the chance to paint. Sometimes in the
evening he would row her out on the lake for a short break from
the noise and confusion. One painting especially testifies to
her desire for solitude—a 6” by 8” watercolor
of water and sky, apparently painted at night while she sat in
the stern of the rowboat, its size a marked departure from her
other lake paintings.
for those of us who live in the Lake George area, little remains
to mark O’Keeffe’s presence at the lake. As far as
I could determine, she left no works behind either in local galleries
and museums or as sales or gifts to friends. When Stieglitz died
in 1948, she settled his affairs and moved to New Mexico, taking
with her any paintings not already sold to dealers and collectors
in New York City and other metropolitan areas.
I wanted to write a mystery involving O’Keeffe paintings,
I realized I must learn more about her work, especially the paintings
she’d done during her summer visits to Lake George. The
newly opened O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe proved an excellent
source of information. The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum
of Modern Art in New York City were most helpful. I was even
given a behind-the-scenes tour of some of her paintings not on
display. My best break came when a traveling exhibit of O’Keeffe’s
work arrived at the Phillips Museum in Washington, DC while I
was attending a Malice Domestic Conference nearby. By extending
my trip, I was able to spend a large part of two days viewing
some of the very paintings I’d be referring to in the book.
of course, to a former librarian, the hours spent pouring over
art books and internet sites and doing research at my local and
other public libraries proved an extra plus.
first-hand information on O’Keeffe’s time in Lake
George I spoke with area residents who remembered O’Keeffe
and Stieglitz or recalled stories about them passed down from
their parents and grandparents.
common recollection: Each morning during their visits to the
lake, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe walked to Lake George Village
from Oaklawn, a short distance north of town. Both dressed entirely
in black and people in the village assumed this was the way all
artists dressed. Stieglitz played miniature golf (still a popular
Lake George Village attraction) with one or more friends. O’Keeffe
didn’t join in, but waited and walked home with him after
about O’Keeffe’s summers at the lake, I realized,
could be easily worked into a mystery—but where to start?
Long-lost O’Keeffe watercolors had surfaced in Canyon,
Texas seventy years after she taught there. Wasn’t it possible
that paintings could have been left behind at Lake George as
well and discovered many years later in an attic or cellar?
of course, those paintings couldn’t be the real thing.
If I wanted O’Keeffe paintings to appear in my mystery,
they’d have to turn out to be forgeries.
it was back to the drawing board—in this case to the library—to
learn about art forgery. I soon realized I’d stumbled onto
another fascinating subject. According to experts, as many as
20% of art masterpieces may be forgeries. A clever forger works
in the style of the artist he is copying and, by avoiding obvious
slip-ups such as using paint or canvas which weren’t available
during the artist’s lifetime, may be able to fool even
a knowledgeable gallery owner
I studied the giant flowers, which were one of O’Keeffe’s
favorite subjects during her visits to the lake, I saw how easily
they would lend themselves to forgery. O’Keeffe used no
intricate backgrounds which would have been difficult to duplicate.
She seldom signed her work, once snapping at someone who asked
why she didn’t, “You don’t sign your face,
do you?” And best of all for my purposes, she often painted
a number of versions of the same flower, then destroyed any she
wasn’t satisfied with.
her usual practice was to burn these rejects herself, it wasn’t
hard to imagine a situation in which she turned the job over
to someone else and the paintings escaped destruction and were
hidden away and forgotten.
Verna Suit, a fellow mystery writer, sent me a copy of Fake,
Clifford Irving’s account of the bizarre adventures of
art forger Elmyr de Hory, I knew I’d found the character
I needed. With a few twists, de Hory became the prototype for
Edward Maranville, the failed artist who is actually painting
the fraudulent O’Keeffe works my protagonist, Ellen Davies,
like de Hory, has never achieved recognition for his own work,
but commands huge sums for his forgeries. A wild talker who loves
to expound on art, he paints in a secret room in a magnificent
Tudor mansion, a room filled with copies of O’Keeffe’s
flower paintings not yet dry enough to crate and ship to their
Ellen, who’s come to Lake George to write about the artist,
enters this room, she thinks she’s found long-lost O’Keeffe
paintings, which like the Canyon Suite watercolors are worth
millions—definitely something any self-respecting villain
would kill for. But she soon uncovers the truth and must think
fast if she is to escape with her life.
after I completed the book, I made a startling discovery. The
National Gallery of Art determined that the paper in the twenty-eight
Canyon Suite watercolors was not available in 1916 and O’Keeffe
could not have painted them. Several theories have been advanced
as to where these paintings came from and how they were misattributed,
but no definite conclusions have been reached. Sometimes a real-life
mystery can’t be solved as easily as a fictional one.
Affinity For Murder, A Lake George Mystery,
won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant in 1999,
the Oak Tree Press Dark Oak Award in 2000 and was a Malice
Domestic Best First Mystery Finalist in 2002.
The Surface, the second in the Lake George
Mystery series, published by Hilliard and Harris, is available
from the publisher, in book stores and on the Internet. When
Loren Graham, the young mayor of Emerald Point, stumbles
on the remains of a beautiful teenager, missing for a year,
she is caught up in a mystery which shocks the sleepy, little
town and almost costs Loren her life.