Simanaitis Says

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FOR A LONG TIME, it was thought that the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe contained specks of sand traceable to her beloved New Mexico environs. But, over time, these specks were taking on a life of their own, growing, spreading, and occasionally flaking off.

It wasn’t New Mexico sand; rather, researchers identified the problem as a kind of artwork acne. What’s more, their findings may lead beyond O’Keeffe’s masterpieces to assessing oil paintings from all ages.

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, 1887–1986, American artist, the “Mother of American modernism.”

According to Wikipedia, Georgia O’Keeffe has been recognized as the “Mother of American modernism.” She is renowned for her paintings of oversize flowers, New York City skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes.

One of these locales is a narrow mesa in northern New Mexico called Cerro Pedernal, Spanish for “Flint Hill.” It’s known locally as Pedernal.

My Front Yard, Summer, 1941, by Georgia O’Keeffe. One of her many paintings of New Mexico’s Pedernal.

O’Keeffe said of Pedernal, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” But, like others of her works, the painting has suffered from imperfections that were growing, spreading, and flaking.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science publishes EurekAlert! as “a Global Source for Science News.” A February 16, 2019, release titled “Diagnosing ‘Art Acne’ in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Paintings” gives details of work supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This strange paint disease was diagnosed by a multidisciplinary team from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A closeup of a portion shows tiny protrusions of metal soap. Image by Dale Kronkright/Georgia O’Keeffe Museum from EurekAlert!

Northwestern researcher Oliver Cossairt presented their findings at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS in Washington, D.C., on February 17, 2019. His abstract of “Diagnosing a Paint Disease with Computer Science: The Case of Georgia O’Keeffe,” gives an overview: “Her paintings produced after 1920 often have damaging metal soap aggregates protruding from their surfaces. The complex histories of these works, or ‘patient histories,’ together with molecular characterization and imaging, are computationally correlated to the occurrence of these aggregates with an aim to slow the deterioration of these artworks.”

Marc Walton, another of the Northwestern researchers, explained, “The free fatty acids within the paint’s binding media are reacting with lead and zinc pigments. These metal soaps started to aggregate, push the surface of the painting up, and form something that looks like acne.”

Nearly all of O’Keeffe’s painting have some degree of damage from metal soap formation. Dale Kronkright, head of conservation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, observed that “The more times the paintings have traveled, the more likely it will be that the protrusions are larger and more numerous.”

“If we can solve this problem,” said Walton, “we’re preserving our cultural heritage for generations to come.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. Michael Rubin
    April 1, 2019

    She did some wonderful work in Hawai’i as well.

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