The Thing in the Window

Cebolla Church is in most respects a typical painting by Georgia O’Keeffe: a deadpan, apparently artless presentation of a subject in colors of bleached sky and adobe. I say apparently artless, because O’Keeffe is really being sly with the image. Note that she squeezes the church into the rectangle of the canvas. Still, it doesn’t fit: the eaves of the roof are clipped off, as in a too tightly focused snapshot. Such brutal cropping robs the church of any sense of place. It is not a place but an object, not all that different from an apple on a table or one of O’Keeffe’s beloved cow’s skulls. Cebolla Church as architectural still life? Why not?

Georgia O'Keeffe painting

Georgia O’Keeffe, Cebolla Church, 1945, Oil on canvas, Gift of the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), in honor of Joseph C. Sloane, 1972 (72.18.1)

But what most intrigues me about this painting–puzzles me to the point of irritation–is that thing in the window. What the heck is it? Look at the rest of the painting, how the artist smoothes and simplifies the forms into broad shapes like some adjective-averse copyeditor. It is all spare and succinct. But just when we are primed to appreciate the image as a deadpan statement–like an apple or skull–the artist goes and puts something strange and arresting in that window. What the heck is it? It obviously was important enough to the artist that she suppressed her editorial instincts and kept it in the picture, the one touch of mystery in an otherwise obvious painting.

Cebolla Church painting

Georgia O’Keeffe, Cebolla Church (Detail), 1945

A while back I thought I had a chance to solve the mystery. I was driving my son out west to college and the road took us through New Mexico. We turned north out of Santa Fe along Route 84, past Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe lived, past the Technicolor cliffs of Ghost Ranch, and on a little ways to the town of Cebolla (map), population: 94. We looked around for the Church of Santo Niño. We were directed across the road to a low brick building that resembled O’Keeffe’s church only in its modesty. I learned later that O’Keeffe’s adobe church was torn down soon after she painted it. Sadly, there was nothing strange in the windows of its replacement. I showed a photograph of our painting to some men at the local roadhouse, but no one even remembered the old church. One guy stared at me and asked “you didn’t drive all the way from North Carolina to ask about that thing in the window, did you?”

When I got home I wrote to the curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. As the author of the definitive catalogue of O’Keeffe’s paintings, she would surely know the identity of that thing. Alas, no. In her e-mail reply, she confessed to being as clueless and curious as me.

I then corresponded with several scientists at New Mexican universities, asking if the thing reminded them of any local plant, a cactus flower perhaps, pressed against the glass. No one offered a suggestion. My letter to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe went unanswered. I’ve now hit the brick wall.

So now I appeal to my readers. Can anyone identify that thing in the window?

This post has been updated. Read more in Revisiting the Thing in the Window.

17 Comments

  1. Chad
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Once I thought it looked like the headstock of a guitar, or some stringed instrument. It does indeed look foliate…but now I’m thinking maybe it has to do with the glass. In the window on the right, the top panes are a dark olive green, while the lower panes are deep blue. The left window has three panes in green, and black behind the mystery object. Window shades? Colored or painted glass?

    (Also–the mysterious shadows have always intrigued me: underneath the left window–none under the right, the stovepipe over the door, the cupola…)

  2. Leslie Carolan
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Hello,

    I have often wondered about “the thing in the window” also. I like your idea of the headstock of the guitar but it doesn’t seem quite right does it? My only other thought is that churches often have handheld fans for the women to use in the hot weather … and maybe this is something like that made of local plants. Or else a tall grass – like pampas grass that is dried (or cactus flower)and in a vase for decoration. Definitely the view is slightly skewed by the angle of the window and looking at the object through the glass on that angle. It is also probably older glass that was thicker at the bottom from settling – all of which may contribute to what appears to be a bend or angle in the object. These are my thoughts. If you ever find out, please post the answer by the painting in the museum for all of us to know!! Or send me the answer! Thanks.

    Many blessings,
    Leslie Carolan

  3. Posted March 30, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    In the first picture, I was sure the image in the window was a person looking out. In the detail, though, it looks just like one of the aliens from Star Wars – giving further proof that I’m an iredeemable nerd :)

    I’m amused to think that either Ms. O’Keeffe predicted Lucas, or Mr. Lucas was inspired, in part, by Ms. O’Keeffe.

  4. Moira Ricketts
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    The Thing In the Window: It looks like a (pre-vacuum cleaner) device used to whack the dust out of rugs. While placed on a line or wall, the rugs were beaten until all the debris was gone.

  5. Sally
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Could it be…a distorted image of a gladiola-like flower, that has fallen over against the window? I kind of like thinking that it is something organic, trying to catch the light (Light?).

  6. Erin G
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I saw the painting a few weeks ago – I thought it might be a quill pen?

  7. cyan
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    If you look it closely,,,

    It is a image of mary…

    try to look it…

    mary is in the middle with six flowers or something on the side…

    you can imagine if you look it closely…

  8. reba G
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I never knew this paiting existed, I grew up going to this church. I’m not sure where you were informed that the church was torn down, it still stands there today. I just took a picture of it last time I was home. I couldn’t tell you what was in the picture either, it doesn’t look like anything to me. It may be a reflection of the sun as some of the windows have saint statues placed in them.

  9. Posted January 9, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I remember reading somewhere – O’keeffe being asked about it – that she couldn’t remember what it was. That would make me think that maybe she never really identified it herself but just painted what was there, crammed into the window pane, like the building in the composition.

  10. Peggy
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Could the thing in the window be the top end of a large stringed instrument?

  11. Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion the painter intended to keep it unclear. It could be a part of an instrument. But I think it looks like a part of a traditional handcraft.

  12. Sue Vause
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    My impression of the “Thing in the Window” is that it is an Alien…but, more interesting to me is how she put those colors together. They are soothing to study. I have never studied Georgia’s work before but this painting appeals to me in its intrigue within its simplicity.

  13. Denise
    Posted November 11, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I had the pleasure of seeing this today in the NCMA. It stunned me when scanning across the work and running into that window! Such a bounded image, then, wham! I immediately though of a recent Doctor Who rerun I watched.

  14. Pat Thompson
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Looked at this yesterday when visiting the NCMA. Wonder if it could be a vase of calla lilies. they are used a lot in Hispanic cultures, and lend themselves to various symbolic interpretations. But could O’Keeffe have found them in Tesuque?

  15. Robert
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    To me, it’s not so much about what the thing is in the window but why it’s in the window. Can you imagine this painting without the thing in the window? Sometimes a very small detail can make the painting (or picture as in the case with photography too.)

  16. Carol Gloriosa
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    It seems we are looking at a reflection in very old glass hence the item is distorted. I’m not certain if yucca gloriosa grows that far north in NM, if so, I’ll bet that’s what we see. By the way, yucca gloriosa is known as Spanish Dagger…how symbolic is that!

  17. Gloria
    Posted March 1, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in Cebolla, was baptized in this church, and was two years old when Georgia O’Keefe painted the church. It’s true, the original church was torn down and rebuilt to the right of the property, perhaps 300 feet from the original. I believe the mysterious shadow is no more than the a distortion in the pane. Besides, an artist loves to add intrigue to his/her paintings.

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