"Where I was born and where and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest."
The work of Georgia O'Keeffe ranks among the finest art of the twentieth century, but it is also loved by, and accessible to, a wide variety of people. A strong, independent person, O'Keeffe resisted being labeled as a female artist, preferring to be considered simply an artist. Similarly, her strikingly original works refuse to be categorized. It was during the Roaring Twenties that O'Keeffe, with the help of the famous photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), first captured the public's attention with some of her most notable paintings. These include the enlarged, sharply focused, and richly colored views of flowers for which she is perhaps best known.
An artist from an early age
Born in the rural community of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O'Keeffe was the second of seven children born to Francis O'Keeffe, a farmer of Irish descent, and Ida O'Keeffe, whohad grown up in a rich, cultured European family. O'Keeffe's mother encouraged her children's interest in art and set aside part of the family's rather meager income for art lessons.
Young Georgia showed her talent for drawing very early, and by the age of ten she had decided that she wanted to become an artist. Her favorite subjects, such as palm trees and beach scenes, were drawn from worlds very different from her own.
While attending the Sacred Heart Convent School in nearby Madison (the state capital), O'Keeffe continued her art education by drawing still-life compositions, an exercise that helped her develop the close attention to detail that would always mark her work. While she was still a student there, her father moved his family to Williamsburg, Virginia. O'Keeffe eventually joined her parents and siblings and spent her high school years at Chatham Episcopal Institute (located about 200 miles [322 kilometers] from Williamsburg). There she enjoyed wandering through the Virginia countryside and drawing the flowers, rocks, and other natural objects she saw on her hikes.
After her 1905 graduation, O'Keeffe moved to Chicago, Illinois, to attend that city's Art Institute. There she learned about the works and artistic techniques of the masters of European art, and she practiced drawing live human models. Although O'Keeffe did not particularly care for the traditional styles that had dominated art in past centuries, she worked hard and became one of the school's top students. She spent only a year at the Art Institute, though, returning to Virginia when she contracted typhoid fever (a serious intestinal disease).
In 1907, when she was twenty years old, O'Keeffe went to New York City to attend classes at the Art Students League. She excelled in her studies but felt that she had not yet discovered her own distinct artistic style or calling. At this time in history, the art world, like most other parts of society, was dominated by men, and women were usually not taken seriously or considered to have equal abilities. Despite O'Keeffe's obvious talent, no one seemed to expect her to pursue art as a serious career.
Becoming a teacher
When O'Keeffe's family began experiencing financial problems, she had to withdraw from the Art Students League. She went to Chicago to live with an aunt and worked as a commercial artist making drawings for advertisements. After contracting the measles, she returned to Virginia, and when she had recovered she began a series of teaching jobs. The first was at her own high school, Chatham Episcopal Institute.
O'Keeffe's family was now living close to Charlottesville, Virginia, and during the summer she enrolled in art classes at the nearby University of Virginia. She studied with Alon Bement, who was on the faculty of New York's Columbia University and who inspired her with his unconventional approach to artistic expression. Along with his colleague Arthur Wesley Dow, Bement encouraged artists to use line and color freely and to follow their own emotional needs in their work.
From 1912 to 1913 O'Keeffe worked as an art instructor in the public schools of Amarillo, Texas. There she first developed an appreciation for the stark southwestern landscapes that would always fascinate her. She returned in the summer to teach summer school at the University of Virginia. It was during this period that O'Keeffe discovered the modernistic work of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), a Russian artist whose colorful, abstract paintings (done in a style that does not try to represent something realistically) encouraged a break with tradition.
O'Keeffe next spent a year in New York City, working as a graduate assistant to Bement and studying with Dow at Columbia. She was energized by the city's thriving creative life, which was then abuzz with the innovative modern art being produced in both the United States and Europe. Like other art students, O'Keeffe visited the 291 Gallery, which had been founded in 1907 by two pioneering photographers, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen (1879–1973). The gallery served not only as an exhibit space for such artists as Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), whose drawings were displayed there during this period, but also as a gathering place for the city's avantgarde (new and experimental) artistic community. At this time O'Keeffe had not yet met Stieglitz, who would later play an important role in her life.
A bold, original talent is recognized
In the fall of 1915 a lack of money forced O'Keeffe to leave New York and take a teaching job at Columbia College in South Carolina. Depressed and lonely, she felt very far away from the exciting world of New York City, but she was sustained through a correspondence with her friend Anna Pollitzer. An artist and active feminist (someone who believes that women should have equal rights and opportunities), Pollitzer kept O'Keeffe informed about news from New York's artistic community and sent her books and art supplies.
Around this time, O'Keeffe gave up oil painting to work exclusively in charcoal on paper. The images she began creating were unusual, abstract visions representing her deepest
Photographer and Arts Advocate Alfred Stieglitz
Photographer and art gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz strongly influenced U.S. culture through both his own groundbreaking work and his sponsorship of modern artists. Among these artists was Georgia O'Keeffe, whom he married in 1925.
Stieglitz was born in 1864. His parents were German-Jewish immigrants, and he grew up in New Jersey, New York City, and, later, Germany. Regardless of where his family resided, Stieglitz was raised in an atmosphere appreciative of the arts, and he developed an early interest in photography.
While studying engineering at the University of Berlin, Stieglitz also educated himself about the history of art and the still-young craft of photography. In 1887 he won first prize in a photo contest sponsored by Amateur Photographer, a British publication. Several years traveling around Europe allowed Stieglitz the opportunity to absorb its cultural influences and develop his photography skills.
When Stieglitz returned to New York with his family in 1890, at age twenty-six, he was already famous as a photographer. At his father's request, he set up a photoengraving business and married the sister of a friend. Both the business and the marriage would eventually fail. Meanwhile, however, he continued to improve his photography. Stieglitz began roaming the streets of New York with his camera, capturing striking shots of common scenes such as men working, horses pulling streetcars, and snow falling on city streets.
Stieglitz's style differed from the European approach to photography, which tended to imitate paintings. They were softly focused, even blurry, and depicted sentimental subjects. Stieglitz's style was direct, clear, crisp images that contrasted black and white, and shadow and light. He preferred to feature ordinary people, objects, and scenes in his work, and tried to promote a distinctly American form of photography. His efforts were frustrated by resistance from more conservative artists.
In 1902 Stieglitz helped found the Photo-Secession group with several like-minded photographers, including Edward Steichen and Clarence White. The group's mission was to promote photography as a distinct art form rather than as a reflection of paintings. In 1903 he began serving as the editor of a new, lavishly illustrated journal called Camera Work.
Stieglitz established himself as a leading advocate of new and experimental art when he opened a gallery known as 291, the address of the building on Fifth Avenue on which it was located. Works of contemporary photographers were showcased, as well as such exciting modern painters as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, and eventually the young Georgia O'Keeffe. To O'Keeffe, Stieglitz produced hundreds of photographs of her. Over the next several decades, Stieglitz promoted O'Keeffe's career and continued his advocacy of other artists.
Following a 1928 heart attack, Stieglitz grew increasingly weak, and by 1937 he could no longer lift a camera. After his 1946 stroke, O'Keeffe selected sixteen hundred of his best images to donate to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. He died that same year.
emotions. She sent a series of these drawings to Pollitzer, telling her friend not to show them to anyone. Pollitzer ignored O'Keeffe's directions and showed the drawings to Stieglitz, who was extremely impressed. Unusual in his day for his liberal attitude toward women and their abilities as artists, Stieglitz included O'Keeffe's work in a show at his gallery. That summer, when O'Keeffe discovered that he had exhibited her drawings without her permission, she angrily confronted Stieglitz. He was quickly able to persuade her, however, to accept what he had done.
That fall, O'Keeffe began her new teaching job at West Texas Normal College. Meanwhile, she continued to correspond and visit with Stieglitz, who featured her works in a 1917 solo show. The two became lovers, even though Stieglitz was married, and he finally convinced her to return permanently to New York, which she did in 1918. Gradually O'Keeffe gained recognition for her stunningly original, bold, and sensual work. At the same time, she also gained fame as the subject of photographs by Stieglitz. He took more than three hundred photographs that captured O'Keeffe's natural elegance and beauty and that he exhibited in a 1921 show called "Portrait of a Woman."
A period of startling creativity
O'Keeffe and Stieglitz now lived together, dividing their time between a New York apartment and a country home at Lake George, New York. In the city, O'Keeffe worked on paintings portraying the New York skyline, such as New York Night (1929); at Lake George, she focused on the natural views and simple architecture around her, creating such paintings as Lake George Barns (1926). Her style was becoming less abstract, though was it not clearly representational or realistic. In 1919 she painted the first of the oversized flowers upon which much of her fame would rest.
These paintings emphasized the inner design of the flower, rendering their folds and cavities with vibrant colors and mysterious shadows. Some observers have interpreted the flower paintings as having sexual overtones, but O'Keeffe, who always resisted such limiting views of her work, claimed that her intent had simply been for the viewer to look more closely at a familiar object. Some of the most notable works from this period include Black Iris (1926), Oriental Poppies (1928), and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit series (1930).
In 1924, after Stieglitz had divorced his first wife, he and O'Keeffe were married. They would forge an unconventional relationship, however, as O'Keeffe came to feel somewhat trapped by her older, rather needy husband and by the environments in which he chose to live. An important change came in 1929 when O'Keeffe traveled to Taos, New Mexico, to visit some friends. She had been attracted to the dry landscapes of the Southwest since her time in Texas, but this time she found herself awestruck. O'Keeffe decided to make these dramatic surroundings of sunshine, adobe buildings (made from a kind of clay brick), and cactus a permanent part of her life.
O'Keeffe began spending each summer in New Mexico, creating paintings that were simplified yet startlingly beautiful portrayals of that environment. During a southwestern drought, O'Keeffe came upon some bleached animal bones lying on the ground. She was struck by their beauty and began incorporating them into such paintings as Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue (1931) and Ram's Head, White Hollyhock (1935). Like the flowers she had painted earlier, these images would forever be associated with O'Keeffe.
At the end of each summer, O'Keeffe would carry her paintings back to New York and turn them over to Stieglitz. He had complete control over exhibiting them, and he worked hard to promote O'Keeffe's work and to keep her at the forefront of the art world.
O'Keeffe's artistic prominence was confirmed when the Art Institute of Chicago held a retrospective exhibit of her work in January 1943; New York's Museum of Modern Art held a similar show in 1946. Having never completed an academic degree during her younger years, O'Keeffe was pleased to receive honorary degrees from the College of William and Mary in 1938 and from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1942.
Continuing a productive career
After Stieglitz died in 1946, O'Keeffe directed the distribution of his personal art collection and papers. Then she returned to live in New Mexico (although she traveled east in 1947 and 1949 to organize retrospective exhibits of Stieglitz's work in both New York and Chicago). She established two permanent homes, one in the village of Abiquiu and one farther north, near the resort area called Ghost Ranch. The southwestern colors of brown, tan, and red and the vast landscapes, geometric shapes, and play of light and shadow that she saw around her continued to dominate her canvases.
During the 1950s O'Keeffe began to travel more extensively, visiting such countries as Peru, Greece, France, Japan, and India. She overcame her initial fear of flying through a newly awakened appreciation for the view through an airplane window. O'Keeffe painted several large works, including Sky Above Clouds (1963–1965), that portray not only dazzling cloud formations but also glimpses of the landscape beneath.
In the early 1970s a young sculptor named Juan Hamilton, who initially came looking for work as a handyman, became an important part of O'Keeffe's life. Hamilton served as a companion and assistant to O'Keeffe, who was then in her eighties and suffering from weakened eyesight. The exact nature of their relationship is not clear: some observers suspected a romantic connection between the two, while others speculated that the childless O'Keeffe viewed Hamilton as a kind of son. In any case, Hamilton would inherit most of the artist's estate, including twenty-four paintings that were valued at seventy million dollars.
A dwindling of interest in O'Keeffe's work ended when she was featured in a 1968 cover story in Life magazine, followed by a retrospective exhibit in New York in 1970. With the growth of the women's movement in the 1970s, O'Keeffe began to be hailed for her achievements within a male-dominated culture and field. Despite her reluctance to allow her gender to define her art, O'Keeffe seemed to embody the independence, self-reliance, and success valued by the women of the late twentieth century.
Determined, perhaps, to set down in her own words how she felt about her life as an artist, O'Keeffe wrote a self-titled autobiography that appeared in 1976. Accompanied by a number of beautiful illustrations, the book focuses not on biographical details but on her work. In the introduction, she states that "Where I was born and where and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest." Georgia O'Keeffe sold more three hundred thousand copies.
In 1977 O'Keeffe was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford (1913–; served 1974–77), and in 1983 she became the first recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. Meanwhile, her work had become a common sight on calendars, posters, and other items, highlighting the vast popularity of the images she created. O'Keeffe died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of ninety-nine. Her ashes were scattered across her beloved New Mexico hills. In 1997 the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe. It houses more of her work than any other institution.
For More Information
Berry, Michael. Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Gherman, Beverly. Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Lisle, Laurie. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Seaview Books, 1980.
O'Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O'Keeffe. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Stieglitz, Alfred. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Available online at http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/background/. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
"Georgia O'Keeffe." American Masters. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/okeeffe_g.html. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
The American painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) developed a distinctive art form that includes startling details of plant forms, bleached bones, and landscapes of the New Mexico desert—all created with natural clarity.
The young artist
Georgia O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887, to Francis and Ida O'Keeffe. She had six siblings, and the family lived on a farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Georgia attended the Sacred Heart Academy, and here she had a chance to learn about drawing and painting. She also attended Saturday art lessons. Her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, and she attended Chatham Episcopal Institute. Here she excelled in the school's art program.
In 1904 Georgia graduated and moved to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois (1905), and the Art Students League in New York City (1907–1908). She worked briefly as a commercial artist in Chicago, and in 1912 she became interested in the principles of Oriental design. After working as a public school art supervisor in Amarillo, Texas (1912–1914), she attended art classes conducted by Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University in New York City. She began to use Dow's system of art education, based on frequent themes in Oriental art, in her teacher-training courses at West Texas State Normal College, where she served as department head (1916–1918).
Career as an artist begins
In 1916 Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the well-known New York photographer and supporter of modernism (a style of art that went against established norms), exhibited some of O'Keeffe's abstract (a type of art that does not strongly represent real objects) drawings. In 1924 O'Keeffe and Stieglitz were married.
Lake George, Coat and Red (1919), a chief example of O'Keeffe's early abstract style, was a roughly brushed composition in which a twisted, mysterious form looms against a rainbow-colored sky. Early in her career she developed a personal, extremely polished style, favoring abstract subject matter such as flower details and severe architectural themes. Many of her paintings were dramatic, sharp-focus enlargements of botanical (flower or plant life) details.
Between 1926 and 1929 O'Keeffe painted a group of views of New York City. New York Night (1929) transformed skyscrapers into patterned, glittering structures. More architecturally characteristic were such paintings as Lake George Barns (1926) and Ranchos Church, Taos (1929). These simple buildings, further simplified in her painting, were America's anonymous folk architecture; in these forms O'Keeffe found a peace that contrasted with the frantic city environment.
New Mexico and new artistic subjects
In 1929 O'Keeffe began spending time in New Mexico; the region's dramatic mesas, ancient Spanish architecture, vegetation, and dry terrain became the focus of her art. Her subjects were simple and basic. Even her stories of death in the desert—a sunbleached skull lying in the sand or attached to a post (as in Cow's Skull with Red, 1936)—were preserved. She regarded these whitened remains as symbols of the desert, nothing more. The dried animal bones and wooden crucifixes of the region that appear in her desert (Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929) were disturbing imaginings.
In 1945 O'Keeffe bought an old adobe house in New Mexico; she moved there after her husband's death in 1946. The house served as a frequent subject in paintings such as Black Patio Door (1955) and Patio with Cloud (1956).
Many of O'Keeffe's paintings of the 1960s, large-scale patterns of clouds and landscapes seen from the air, reflected a romanticized view of nature reminiscent of her early themes. These large paintings culminated in a twenty-four-foot mural on canvas, Sky above Clouds IV (1965). Her paintings of the 1970s were intense, powerful representations of a black rooster.
A portrayal of O'Keeffe, In Cahoots with Coyote from Terry Tempest Williams's 1994 book An Unspoken Hunger, painted a vivid narrative of the artist's intense interest in the beloved New Mexico she first visited in 1917. Her search for the ideal color, light, stones, and parched bones, transformed her desert country excursions into a personal closeness she felt with the perfection around her. Once, in a canyon bottom, she was so absorbed by the sight that she laid her head back Coyote-fashion and howled at the sky, terrifying her companions nearby who feared she was injured. "I can't help it—it's all so beautiful," was her response.
The end of a brilliant career
O'Keeffe's boldly original American works spanned a wide vision from taut city towers to desertscapes in such vivid hues and form "as to startle the senses," according to Williams's narrative. O'Keeffe painted until a few weeks before her death in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 6, 1986, at the age of ninety-eight.
Many of O'Keeffe's works found a permanent home among the adobe buildings of Sante Fe. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, opened in 1997 to hold more of her pastels, drawings, paintings, and sculptures than any other museum.
For More Information
Brooks, Philip. "Georgia O'Keeffe: An Adventurous Spirit." New York: F. Watts, 1995.
Kucharczyk, Emily Rose. Georgia O'Keeffe. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 2002.
Nicholson, Lois P. Georgia O'Keeffe. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1995.
Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
The American painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) created a distinctive iconography that includes startling details of plant forms, bleached bones, and landscapes of the New Mexico desert—all rendered with pristine clarity.
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O'Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905) and the Art Students League in New York City (1907-1908). She worked briefly as a commercial artist in Chicago, and in 1912 she became interested in the principles of Oriental design. After working as a public school art supervisor in Amarillo, Texas (1912-1914), she attended art classes conducted by Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University. She instituted Dow's system of art education, based on recurring themes in Oriental art, in her teacher-training courses at West Texas State Normal College, where she served as department head (1916-1918).
Lake George, Coat and Red (1919), a salient example of O'Keeffe's early abstract style, was a roughly brushed composition in which a twisted, enigmatic form looms against a rainbow-hued sky. Early in her career she developed a personal, extremely refined style, favoring inherently abstract subject matter such as flower details and austere architectural themes. Many of her paintings were dramatic, sharp-focus enlargements of botanical details.
Though O'Keeffe insisted that there was no symbolism behind her work, art critics continue to speculate about the sexual imagery in such paintings as Black Iris (1926) and Jack in the Pulpit No. 6 (1930). Indeed, this generative tension underlying her botanical paintings accounts for much of their force and mystery, and these images exalting life and energy were among her most optimistic and successful.
Between 1926 and 1929 O'Keeffe painted a group of views of New York City. New York Night (1929) transformed skyscrapers into patterned, glittering structures that deny their volume. More architecturally characteristic were such paintings as Lake George Barns (1926) and Ranchos Church, Taos (1929). These simple buildings, further simplified in her painting, were America's anonymous folk architecture; in these forms O'Keeffe found a permanence and tranquility that contrasted with the frenetic urban environment.
In 1929 O'Keeffe began spending time in New Mexico; that region's dramatic mesas, ancient Spanish architecture, vegetation, and desiccated terrain became her constant themes. Total clarity characterizes her elemental vistas, and her subjects existed in self-contained worlds. Even her allegories of death in the desert—a sunbleached skull lying in the sand or affixed to a post (as in Cow's Skull with Red, 1936)—were eternalized. She regarded these whitened relics as symbols of the desert, nothing more. "To me, they are strangely more living than the animals walking around—hair, eyes and all, with their tails switching." The dried animal bones and wooden crucifixes of the region which loom in her desert (Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929) were disquieting apparitions.
In 1945 O'Keeffe bought an old adobe house in New Mexico; she moved there after her husband's death in 1946. The house served as a frequent subject. In paintings such as Black Patio Door (1955) and Patio with Cloud (1956) details of doors, windows, and walls were radically reduced to virtually unmodified planes of color.
Many of O'Keeffe's paintings of the 1960s, large-scale patterns of clouds and landscapes seen from the air, reflected a romanticized view of nature evocative of her early themes. It Was Blue and Green (1960) used more impressionistic color, and the painting technique was looser, with less reliance on sharp contours. These large paintings culminated in a 24-foot mural on canvas, Sky above Clouds IV (1965). Her paintings of the 1970s were intense, powerful renditions of a black cock.
A portrayal of O'Keefe, In Cahoots with Coyote from Terry Tempest Williams' 1994 book An Unspoken Hunger, painted a vivid narrative of the artist's entrancement with her beloved New Mexico she first visited in 1917.
"I simply paint what I see," O'Keefe is quoted as saying, from O'Keefe's own essays published in Georgia O'Keefe in 1987.
But, narrated Williams, her search for the ideal color, light, stones, parched bones that contained more life in them than living animals, transformed her forays into desert country into a communion with the perfection around her. Once, in a canyon bottom, she was so enthralled by the sight that she laid her head back Coyote-fashion and howled at the sky, terrifying her companions nearby who feared she was injured. "I can't help it—it's all so beautiful," was her response.
Another, well-known story related by Williams was of O'Keefe purloining a perfectly shaped, totally black stone she coveted from the coffee table of friends. They had found it at a canyon riverbed during a search for stones moments before O'Keefe arrived at the spot, but kept it tantalizingly out of her reach. Obsessed with the stone and seeing it on the table for her to steal if she wanted, she had no doubt she was the rightful possessor of such beauty.
O'Keefe's boldly original American works encompassed a wide vision from taut city towers to desertscapes in such vivid hues and form "as to startle the senses," according to the narrative. O'Keeffe painted until a few weeks before her death. She died on March 6, 1986, less than a year short of turning 100.
Many of her works found a permanent home among the abode buildings of Sante Fe, New Mexico. The Georgia O'Keefe Museum, designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, opened in 1997 to hold more of her pastels, drawings, paintings and sculpture than any other museum.
The following exhibition catalogs were devoted to the artist: Art Institute of Chicago, Georgia O'Keeffe (1943), with an essay by Daniel Catton Rich; Worcester Art Museum, Georgia O'Keeffe: Forty Years of Her Art (1960), with an introduction by Rich; Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Georgia O'Keeffe (1966), with quotations from various writers and critics and the artist herself; and Whitney Museum of American Art, Georgia O'Keeffe (1970), by Lloyd Goodrich and Doris Bry. Information on the Georgia O'Keeffe museum can be found in Metropolitan Home July-August 1997 or be accessed on the internet through Santa Fe, New Mexico's online magazine at http://www.rcnews.com/july/realv/realv.html (July 29, 1997). O'Keeffe's obituary appeared in the March 7, 1986 edition of the New York Times. □