Shells and Skulls


Our Correspondents

Delighting in the mollusks of art history.

Photo: Angela Chen.


Typical of her species, the clam deactivated all of her social-media accounts on her thirtieth birthday and headed to the sea, not wanting anyone to wish her well. She was unable to explain this urge to hide on what most considered a momentous transition—thirty!—a day that’s usually reserved for last-hurrah debauchery. Instead, she Googled cabin rentals in Sag Harbor, where she and her husband would be unlikely to run into anyone they knew. On the drive out, a misty rain cloaked the empty highway. It rained all night, so they stayed in, drank bourbon, and watched The Shining in bed. The next morning, when she went out for a jog along the shore, the liminal space between sea and sky looked fuzzy, indistinct. She searched for something to latch on to. In the city, she tended to look up, searching for scalloped edges and glimpses of figures in lit windows, but by the sea, she looked at the sand. Whatever she picked up she put back down, knowing from experience that these objects would never be as beautiful as they were at first glance, half submerged and luminous in the frayed light.


She couldn’t explain it then, the urge to hide on one’s birthday, but recently she read a passage in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost about the molting behavior of hermit crabs that explained it perfectly. Hermit crabs have soft, vulnerable bodies, so they scavenge for shells left behind by mollusks. Aside from shedding their exoskeletons, this shell-search is the riskiest part of a crab’s life. Between scurrying out of a too-small shell to a better-fitted one, any number of things can happen: she could get eaten, lose her old shell to an opportunist crab, or get dragged off by a male crab for mating. At the cusp of the molt, the last thing she wants to do is call attention to herself, so she buries herself in the sand or waits underneath a rock. 


Later, wandering through the Parrish Art Museum on that same trip, the clam came across a painting that she found so amusing she took a picture of it and sent it to her friends. Titled Portrait of Shellfish, it featured an array of clams, mussels, oysters, and a conch, plus two crustaceans—a crab and a lobster—perched on a lighthouse window ledge. The arrangement recalled an awkwardly posed family photo. An opened oyster quivered, fleshy and beige, like a well-fed aristocrat. The closed-lipped shells looked like pouty, uncooperative children. The placard informed the viewer that the painter, Hubbard Latham Fordham, had worked as the head keeper of the nearby Cedar Island Lighthouse in the 1860s. When he made this portrait, he had been “looking for a new direction” in his art.

The clam didn’t know why she found this painting so funny. Perhaps it was the unsettling expressiveness of the shellfish, or perhaps it was simply that phrase, “looking for a new direction”—it seemed a flippant way to describe an existential crisis, no less gut-wrenching in its universality. She imagined that Fordham had been extremely limited in his range of possible subjects, ensconced as he was in the solitude of his lighthouse, but now, writing this, she recalled that even artists with a wide range of possible subjects tended to gravitate towards shelled creatures in times of crisis.


Take the example of Rembrandt, who made his well-known etching of The Shell (Conus Marmoreus) the same year he committed his second wife to the “Gouda House of Correction”(1650).  One could only speculate about his psychological state, but tellingly, six years later, he would file for bankruptcy and liquidate all of his assets. Among his personal affects were enormous quantities of shells and coral branches, including a single conch shell for which he paid eleven guilders, more expensive than any other item he possessed except for a print by Raphael. The conch was extremely rare, imported from the Far East—so his determination to acquire it against all good sense can only suggest temporary insanity. It was, perhaps, the seventeenth-century midlife equivalent of buying a sports car.

Rembrandt, The Shell (Conus Marmoreus), 1650.

In retrospect, Rembrandt’s collector’s mania made sense: shells are beautiful, morbid objects, much like skulls. Both are the calcified remains of some long-dead animal. They straddle a boundary between nature and art, necessity and excess, form and function—the coveted ideal for any artist. Perhaps they also represent the possibility of immortality, of living beyond the flesh. Shells and skulls, unsurprisingly, were both used as motifs in Dutch vanitas paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, popular still-life compositions of hourglasses, flowers, skulls, and overripe fruit, all meant to remind the viewer of the transience of life. The word vanity comes from latin vanus or “empty,” which may very well apply to the bereft shell.


This year, around her thirty-second birthday, the clam decided to drive to Abiquiú to visit the retreat of yet another artist who had briefly succumbed to shellfish: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Admittedly, the clam had never been especially interested in this iconic painter, a dentist’s waiting-room favorite, but now that the clam had spent some time in New Mexico, she found the painter impossible to avoid. Everywhere she went, she was confronted with Georgia anecdotes and Georgia rooms, even Georgia ghosts that lurked in otherwise unremarkable buildings. The entire local economy seemed to be powered by the Georgia nostalgia machine: flower and skull images on gift-store knickknacks, horseback riding tours to stirring Georgia plein air locales with sack lunch included. At first, the clam tried to be cynical about it, but she was starting to admit that there was something singular about Georgia’s vision. After awhile, certain moments began to transform themselves into animate Georgia paintings: the stark late-afternoon shadows; the cow skulls hanging over low casita doorways; the herds of clouds stampeding across New Mexico’s preternaturally blue sky.


O’Keeffe began her first clam series in 1926, during a difficult transitional period in her career. Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, O’Keeffe’s relationship to art, marriage, and womanhood would evolve in radical ways. Her career was taking off just as the health of her husband and mentor, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was in decline. By this time, they had grown disillusioned with one another and possibly with the whole endeavor of marriage: after more than a decade together, she was no longer the naive “woman-child” (or the “little plant” he had “watered and weeded and dug around”) and he was no longer her sole authority. O’Keeffe became increasingly indignant as muse and wife, requiring more and more time alone. That summer, at their country estate in Lake George, she stopped socializing with others, stopped eating, and lost fifteen pounds in two weeks. Then she fled to York Beach, Maine, where she began, once more, to paint.

O’Keeffe’s first clam series is solemn, quiet, and bleached of the ecstatic hues that characterize her earlier flower paintings. While the flowers represent an explosion of fertility and abundance, this clam series is cold, austere, and barren, painted in white, tan, blue-black, and gray. In Slightly Open Clam Shell (1926), the opening of a clean white shell faces the viewer, revealing a tiny ominous black bud. The composition of Closed Clam Shell (1926) is even more forbidding: the hunched dorsal edge of the clam cuts vertically down the center of the painting, reminiscent of a shrouded figure in prayer. O’Keeffe’s biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp comments: “If, as suggested, O’Keeffe’s paintings are self-portraits, these offer evidence of a woman who had shut down.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Slightly Open Clam Shell, 1926.

O’Keeffe knew that these paintings were a departure for her, but she couldn’t quite articulate why. She only knew she was attracted to these forms—shells, shingles—which were calling out from her subconscious. She confessed distractedly:

I do not seem to be crystallizing anything this winter … Much is happening—but it doesn’t take shape … I am not clear—am not steady on my feet … I have come to the end of something—and until I am clear there is no reason why I should talk to anyone.

Despite her own reservations, the clam paintings were well received. The paintings sold—one woman offered the price of a Rolls-Royce for the entire Shell and Shingle series—and garnered a new kind of cultural caché for O’Keeffe: this was “high” art now, and “French.” Critics praised her mature palette and restrained subject matter—one male critic noted that it operated on an “intellectual” rather than “emotional” register, since “emotion would not permit such plodding precision.” Glad for once that the reviewers weren’t belaboring the sexual nature of her paintings, O’Keeffe responded that she was “pleased to have the emotional faucet turned off.” The exhibition also turned out to be a watershed moment, ushering in a new period of financial security. From this exhibition on, she would be able to support herself through painting alone.

However, as O’Keeffe’s career took off, her marriage worsened. Dorothy Norman, a young woman forty years Stieglitz’s junior, appeared at one of O’Keeffe’s exhibitions, asserting herself as Stieglitz’s new lover and muse. O’Keeffe had no control over this affair (she was instructed not to “intrude” on the nude photo sessions Stieglitz conducted with Norman on the bed he shared with O’Keeffe) so she continued on with her shells, returning to York Beach to paint Shell No. 1 (1928), her first nautilus-shaped shell, and another clam, Shell No. 2 (1928), draped with sinister-looking seaweed. For Drohojowska-Philp, this painting symbolizes what O’Keeffe called her “black-hearted” disposition. Strikingly, O’Keeffe constantly chastised herself for not attending to Stieglitz’s needs more thoroughly, describing herself as a “heartless wretch.” She remained a dutiful wife, caring for him even after they stopped speaking to one another. That summer at Lake George, she painted Yellow Leaves with Daisy (1928), a painting easily symbolic of a fading May–December relationship.

In the spring of 1929, O’Keeffe agreed to take a trip to New Mexico with the painter Rebecca Strand, a trip that would change the course of her life. The two women went out West at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, an art critic and socialite who was trying to set up an artist community in Taos. For the first time in their lives, the two women were free from their controlling husbands, and while they had always regarded one another with suspicion, without the men, their friendship blossomed. They sunbathed nude, went out dancing, drank liquor, learned to drive, and “even smoked a cigarette once in awhile.” The open landscape reminded O’Keeffe of the way she used to be, before she met Stieglitz, when she was still living in West Texas and supporting herself through teaching.

When she returned from the New Mexico trip, O’Keeffe began painting Inside Clam Shell (1930). It had a different kind of composition from the previous clam paintings: rather than showing the half-opened seam, this painting depicted a zoomed-in view of the clam’s interior, a landscape so vast it couldn’t be contained—it spilled off the edges of the canvas, stretched beyond the frame. It was a declaration of her own immense subjectivity. Confident that she contained an entire world, she was eager to show its contours. She might be a clam, but she was a complex one.

Many more difficult events would transpire in that decade, and by the end of it, O’Keeffe had added not only shells but also animal skulls to her visual vocabulary—those iconic images of Southwest Americana. In 1938, she painted Red Hills with White Shell, a monolithic, white nautilus shell securely nestled in the center of a red hill landscape. It seemed she was beginning to feel at home.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Hill and White Shell, 1938.


The clam paused here in the biography. This progression from clam to nautilus: the salvation was in the architecture. Why not become a mollusk with propulsion, who could ascend and descend down into the water column as it wished? One didn’t have to be crab either, scavenging for shells.

This is how Solnit concludes that passage about the molting hermit crabs:

Many love stories are like the shells of hermit crabs, though others are more like chambered nautiluses, whose architecture grows with the inhabitant and whose abandoned smaller chambers are lighter than water and let them float in the sea.

Perhaps she was ready to become some other kind of mollusk.


Everyone had instructed the clam, with the hushed reverence reserved for saints, Oh, but you must visit Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, as though it were a pilgrimage site. This afternoon, as she edged the car up the hill and coasted down into the valley, she finally understood. Her friend M., sitting in the passenger seat, audibly gasped. The landscape was like nothing they had ever seen, striated in pastel pinks and yellows and grays. To their left, Abiquiú Lake shone brightly in the sun.

After their hike up Chimney Rock and an obligatory stroll through the archaeology museum (“Oh my god, they even named a dinosaur after Georgia!” M. said), the mollusk and M. were sunburned, ravenous, but happy. They headed to Abiquiú Lake to see if they could swim. They were told it would be too cold this time of year, but they just wanted to see. The sun was already low in the sky, no longer radiating much warmth. At the swimming beach, they encountered a group of women grilling burgers on a mini cooker, shaded beneath colorful umbrellas. “Is this the best way to get in?” the mollusk asked, and the women nodded. “Good luck,” they said sympathetically—they had braved the frigid water earlier.

By the time the mollusk looked over, M. was already standing shin-deep in the lake, shrieking about the pain. “You just have to go for it!” the women called out from the rocks, laughing. There was no way they could not swim after they had come all this way, and now they had an audience, so the two of them launched pathetically into the water, dog paddling for several minutes before the merciful onset of numb skin. The barbecuing women shouted, “How is it?” and M. shouted back, “Like torture, but so good!” They got out and got in and got out and got in and got out, dripping and goose-pimpled, scrambling for towels. “I’m glad we did that,” M. said, out of breath. “I felt like a powerful woman.” Then they lay out on the rocks for awhile, their limbs outstretched to absorb as much of the waning sun as possible before it finally set.


Anelise Chen is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions, out in June from Kaya Press. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University.