The painting itself arrived in 1919 whilst the artist was living in New York. It seems extraordinary that something so incredibly contemporary could have been produced just after the end of WWI as well as being so positive and uplifting at a time of global instability. Georgia O'Keeffe would have been just into her early thirties at this point but was already illustrating what to expect from the next fifty years of her career, with bright colours and a modernist style that were entirely ground-breaking at the time, and even led to her being known as the "Mother of Modernism" by some. Although lesser known within her career, Red and Orange Streak holds a great significance in showing how her career and style were developing at this time. The scene is predominantly delivered in dark tones, with a striking red skyline cutting across the horizontal.
Upon this dark setting, we then have a bright streak of colour that arrives from the bottom left of the painting and then curves around to the top right. It feels like a natural element, but we cannot identify it without looking deeper into the artist's career, as well as studying other paintings from this period. Eventually, letters of hers sent to others revealed that it was a study of lightning whilst based in New York. She was known to have been amazed by the display of this strong natural force and immediately went about trying to capture it within her work. The Modernist style of the artist were well suited to this heavy contrast of colour, and the darker tones in the background helped to bring out the beauty of the lightning strike itself.
Having lived in Texas previously, there is perhaps some influence from that region here, even though she had since moved on. The vast open expanses of land much surely have been related to that region, rather than where she was living now and perhaps she wanted the full attention to be given to the lightning by avoiding any real detail elsewhere in the piece. It may even have been a case of the artist producing a painting to remind her of her previous life in Texas, and perhaps part of her missed this alternative lifestyle as opposed to the busier, hectic world of New York. Either way, she was later quoted as saying in regards to this particular painting that:
"...the whole thing—lit up—first in one
place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just
sheet lightning—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright
zigzag flashing across—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just
looking at the lightning..."