The Flag (O'Keeffe painting)

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The Flag, watercolor and graphite on paper, 12 in × 8 34 in (30 cm × 22 cm), 1918, Milwaukee Art Museum

The Flag is a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe (1918), that represents her anxiety about her brother being sent to fight in Europe during World War I, a war that was particularly dangerous due to the uses of new and especially dangerous weapons and tactics, like mustard gas, naval mines, high-powered guns, and aerial combat. It was not displayed until 1968, in part because anti-war sentiment was criminalized with the Espionage Act of 1917.[1][2][3] It is in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.[4][1]


Everything seems to be whirling or unbalanced—I'm suspended in the air—can't get my feet on the ground... I should think going to war would be a great relief from this everlasting reading about it—thinking about it—hearing talk about it—whether one believed in it or not—it is a state that exists and experiencing it in reality seems preferable to the way we are all being soaked with it second hand—it is everywhere… it's all like a bad dream.

—Georgia O'Keeffe in a letter to Paul Strand.[2]

In 1918, O'Keeffe was in a state of depression and anxiety about the war and did not paint for three months. While she understood why it was important militarily, she found it at odds with humanism and basic Christian beliefs.[5] O'Keeffe's brother, Alexius[6] or Alexis, was stationed in a military camp in Texas before he shipped out for Europe during World War I. She visited him in the fall of 1917 before he was shipped overseas, and was anxious about his fate.[3] He was one of the first soldiers sent to France and did not believe that he would return to the United States alive.[5] In France war had become very dangerous due to chemical and technologically advanced weapons. Poisonous gases were used against troops, which could kill, blind, or severely injure them. High-powered and long-range guns could cause significant destruction. Submarines planted mines in the seas and airplanes dropped weapons from the sky.[3]

O’Keeffe found herself at odds with people in Canyon about the war and was discouraged by attempts to glorify it.[6] She tried to persuade her male students to continue their education, rather than fight in the war[5] and she also wanted authorities to create a course for young men about the reasons and causes of war before they engaged in battle.[6] She created a stir when she asked a shop owner to remove Christmas cards from his shop that expressed anti-German sentiment.[2] O'Keeffe became quite ill from influenza during the 1918 flu pandemic, which had killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide, and took a leave of absence from her teaching position at the West Texas State Normal College in early 1918 to recuperate at a friend's ranch in San Antonio,[6] where she painted The Flag.[7]


The Flag, both a political statement and a reflection of her fears, is a red streak "bleeding into bruise-colored clouds".[3] In December 1917, she wrote that she felt compelled for the first time to paint from a sense of necessity. Her image for the painting was of a flag floating in the wind, similar to a tremble.[8] Author Roxana Barry Robinson states, "O'Keeffe sets a drooping flag against a starless, darkening sky. The flag flutters limply, stripped of its stars and stripes; its only color, and that of the pole, is blood red."[2] Alexis was severely gassed in France and eventually died from the effects on January 7, 1930, in Cook, Illinois[9].[3]

Anti-war sentiment was criminalized with the Espionage Act of 1917,[3] and people living in Canyon were uneasy due to her anti-war position.[2] The Flag was in the private collection of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley in October 25, 1968, when it was part of a Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition, and was acquired by the museum in 1977.[1] The painting is included in the "World War I and American Art" exhibition opened by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in January 2017. After about a four-month run it will travel to the New-York Historical Society, where it will be shown until September 3, 2017.[1][3]


  1. ^ a b c d "The Flag". Milwaukee Art Museum. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e Roxana Robinson; Georgia O'Keeffe (1989). Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. UPNE. pp. 192–193. ISBN 978-0-87451-906-8.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Holland Cotter (January 5, 2017). "World War I — The Quick. The Dead. The Artists". New York Times. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
  4. ^ "The Flag". Smithsonian Institution Research Information System. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c Roxana Robinson; Georgia O'Keeffe (1989). Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. UPNE. pp. 191–192. ISBN 978-0-87451-906-8.
  6. ^ a b c d Malin Wilson (April 16, 1998). "Watercolors Expand View of O'Keeffe". Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved January 15, 2017 – via
  7. ^ Nancy Hopkin Reily (December 1, 2014). Georgia O’Keeffe, A Private Friendship, Part I: Walking the Sun Prairie Land. Sunstone Press. pp. 270–271. ISBN 978-1-63293-042-2.
  8. ^ Georgia O'Keeffe; Alfred Stieglitz (June 21, 2011). My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915–1933. Yale University Press. p. 446. ISBN 978-0-300-16630-9.
  9. ^ "Alexis". geni_family_tree. Retrieved 2019-01-11.