Produced in the early period when O'Keeffe was exploring the idea of enlarging the central motif, Large Dark Red Leaves on White depicts the leaves magnified and slightly cropped to fill the canvas. The results of O'Keeffe's dispassionate observation are at once coolly distant and psychologically intense.
As a significant statement in her emerging style, this painting is an example of the core of O'Keeffe's art: a fusion of objectivity and abstraction as a means of expressing her inner emotions. O’Keeffe transforms the lines and colors of the objective form—a leaf—into an abstract composition. The large dark leaf forms are upright within an abstract setting; the deep red tones contrast with the silvery gray and white hues of the surrounding shapes, placed in ambiguous space, both supporting and encroaching on the central motif.
The sources for her characteristic style are diverse, although they are most closely linked to her training under Arthur Wesley Dow, whose theories emphasized the importance of simplifying and isolating form to reveal its essence. The exercises Dow gave his students—such as taking a leaf-like form and fitting it into a square in varied ways—provided a framework for O'Keeffe's approach to composition throughout her career. Her mature style reaffirms Dow’s belief of the importance of shape to the spirit of an object.
O'Keeffe's compositions, with their enlargement, cropping, and fragmentation, also reflect the impact of photography, which provided her with new subject matter and fresh conceptual approaches to making art. By 1919 O’Keeffe developed a perspective that synthesized painting and photography, creating a style of objective abstraction that is embodied in Large Dark Red Leaves on White. Her large single forms are often linked with the work of photographer Paul Strand, who as early as 1916 had photographed bowls and porch shadows isolated from their surroundings. O’Keeffe had seen his images, as Strand was both a friend and a member of the Stieglitz circle. Another source for her change of style and motifs can also be found closer to home—her own experiences as the subject of Stieglitz's photographs. O’Keeffe was profoundly affected by his portraits of her, which focused not only on her face, but also her hands, torso, and other parts of her body.