Georgia O’Keeffe is perhaps best known for her paintings of flowers and the American Southwest, but in the mid-1920s (when she was in her late 30s), O’Keeffe painted a series of 15 cityscapes, including this image of the Shelton Hotel.
When the Shelton was completed in 1924, it was the tallest hotel in the world at a towering 34 stories. O’Keeffe moved into the 30th floor of the Shelton with her new husband Alfred Stieglitz in 1925 and painted this image a year later. The structure captivated O’Keeffe, who streamlined the building’s form to accentuate its verticality.
But instead of merely focusing on the architecture, O’Keeffe also highlighted the effects of light and atmosphere. About the moment that inspired her to make this painting, O’Keeffe said “I went out one morning to look at [the Shelton Hotel] and there was the optical illusion of a bite out of one side of the tower made by the sun, with sunspots against the building and against the sky.”
The aforementioned “sunspots” actually resulted from lens flare, in which stray light in a camera reflects off the lens into dark areas of the film. So the painting explores the visual effects of a camera and represents how the Shelton might look in a photograph. By portraying such an unusual view, O’Keeffe emphasized her own role in the work’s creation. “One can’t paint New York as it is,” she said at the time, “but rather as it is felt.”