O’Keeffe is popularly known for her large-scale paintings of flowers from the 1920s and 1930s. Flowers as a theme were considered a “feminine” subject in the 19th and early 20th century, but no one had ever painted them like her: magnified, lushly colored, and botanically detailed.
As soon as she began to exhibit such imagery, both male and female critics—following theories promoted by Stieglitz himself—interpreted her art as having strong sexual and anatomical connotations, claiming her images were expressions of an essential and uniquely feminine artistic sensibility. O’Keeffe spent years denying these eroticized readings of her paintings as well as the qualification of her identity as an artist with the word woman. In an interview in the 1960s, she offered a different account of how she came to paint her big flowers:
In the twenties, huge buildings seemed to be going up overnight in New York. At that time I saw a painting by Fantin-Latour, a still life of flowers I found very beautiful, but I realized were I to paint the flowers so small, no one would look at them because I was unknown. So I thought I’ll make them look big like the huge buildings going up. People will be startled; they’ll have to look at them—and they did.