O'Keeffe, Georgia (1887–1986)

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O'Keeffe, Georgia (1887–1986)

American abstract artist, one of the foremost artists of the 20th century, whose long, stormy relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz was one of the principal art legends of the century. Name variations: Georgia O'Keeffe before and after marriage; "Pat" to her art school friends. Born Georgia Totto O'Keeffe in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887; died in a Santa Fe (New Mexico) hospital on March 6, 1986; daughter of Francis Calixtus O'Keeffe and Ida Wyckoff (Totto) O'Keeffe; married Alfred Stieglitz, in December 1924 (died 1946); no children.

Moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, with family (1902); attended the Art Institute of Chicago, for formal studies (1905); attended Art Students League in New York (1907); went to work as a commercial artist in Chicago (1910); enjoyed summer study with Alon Bement at the University of Virginia (1912); first visited the American west (August 1912), taking a temporary job supervising drawing teachers in Amarillo, Texas (1912–14); met avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1914); taught art in a small South Carolina Methodist junior college (1915); returned to Texas (1916) to teach at West Texas Normal College in Canyon; taught at University of Virginia (1916); began affair with Stieglitz who was married (1918); married (1924); had career as independent artist (1919–86); bought a house in the village of Abiquiu, New Mexico (early 1930s); death of Stieglitz (1946); made first visit to Europe (1953); visited Peruvian Andes (1956); spent three months traveling around the world (1959).

Selected works among the over 2,300 she created:

Tent Door at Night (1913); Black Lines (1916); Pink and Green Mountains III (1917); The Flag (1918); Trees and Picket Fence (1918); From the Plains (1919); Blue and Green Music (1919); Red and Blue Plums (1920); Lake George (1923); Red Canna (c. 1923); Dark Abstraction (1924); Pattern of Leaves (1924); Large Dark Red Leaves on White (1925); East River No. 1 (1926); Morning Glory with Black (1926); Shelton Hotel, New York, No. 1 (1926); Black Iris (1926); Red Hills and Sun, Lake George (1927); Poppy (1927); Shell 1 (1927); White Flower (1929); Black Hollyhock with Blue Larkspur (1929, sold for $1.98 million in 1987); Ranchos Church Taos, New Mexico (1930); Jawbone and Fungus (1930); Dark Mesa and Pink Sky (1930); White Trumpet Flower (1932); Stables (1932); Barn with Snow (1933); Jimson Weed (c. 1934); Pink Roses (1934); Sunflower #2 (1935); Purple Hills near Abiquiu (1935); Three Shells (1937); Pink Sweet Peas (1937); From the Faraway Nearby (1937); Pink Shell with Seaweed (c. 1938); White Camelia (1938); Beauford Delaney (c. 1940); From the White Place (1940); Pelvis with Moon (1943); Black Place No. 1 (1944); the Pelvis series (1944); Poppies (1950); Grey Tree by the Road (1952); Winter Trees III (1953); Patio with Cloud (1956); Only One (1959); Blue B (1959); White Patio with Red Door I (1960); Sky Above Clouds IV (1965); the Black Rock series (1970).

Georgia O'Keeffe was the foremost American woman artist of the 20th century. Her distinctive paintings of flowers, skulls, and abstracted Western landscapes are instantly recognizable, and she was so exhaustively photographed by her patron and lover Alfred Stieglitz that her severe, unsmiling face and slim figure are familiar to everyone at all interested in 20th-century American art. She lived to the age of 98 and, after falling briefly out of fashion in the 1950s, regained her early renown and became an icon to women artists and feminists in the 1970s and since.

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, on a prairie farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where her father raised dairy cattle. She was the second of seven children, including sisters Claudia, Ida , and Anita , and was schooled, in early childhood, at the local one-room schoolhouse, walking to school each day, observing nature. She showed an early aptitude for drawing and for music, playing piano and violin. Her maternal Grandmother Totto was tall, dignified, and spoke with precision. When she reprimanded her grandchild for touching one of the ornaments in a collection in the parlor, "I was so fascinated by her precise way of speaking," recalled O'Keeffe, "that I would do it again just to hear her say, 'You must not do that a-gain.'" Mary Catherine O'Keeffe , her paternal grandmother, was also elegant, with braided hair, who always wore blue at home or black when she came to visit. O'Keeffe's later habit of "wearing black with white collars or other one-toned suits, keeping her silver hair plaited or pinned at the nape of her neck, having ramrod posture, speaking precisely, and assembling collections of 'untouchable' ornaments from nature, all may stem from the conscious and subconscious influence of her two grandmothers," writes Jan Garden Castro .

The O'Keeffes moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, when Georgia was 15 in the hope that their children would get a better education on the East Coast—her mother Ida Totto O'Keeffe felt she had married "down" and was eager to give her daughters as much "finish" as possible. In any event, Georgia's father Francis O'Keeffe endured a succession of business failures, and the family, tense and argumentative, was often unhappy. Georgia went to a succession of church-run boarding schools where she proved intellectually and artistically precocious.

Family poverty was not yet too acute, and from school she moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, for formal studies. Her first prize in the life class there, says biographer Benita Eisler , was "a triumph of discipline over distaste." Next she spent a year at the Art Students League in New York. Further training there was in the style of William Merritt Chase, a dominant figure in the New York art world who had become very rich as a portraitist. Chase made his students work on a new still life painting every day. "There was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exacting about him that made him fun," she wrote of him later. One of her still lifes, of a dead rabbit beside a metal pot, won a prize—a funded summer of work at the Art Students League's school by Lake George, in upstate New York. By 1910, however, the deterioration of the family's fortunes obliged O'Keeffe to earn her own living, and she went to work as a commercial artist in Chicago, drawing lace and embroidery for advertisements, and fearing that she might never be able to enjoy the life of a fine artist. Subsequent summer study with Alon Bement at the University of Virginia in 1912, however, introduced her to the methods of Arthur Wesley Dow, a pioneer teacher of abstract art in America, and her ambition revived.

O'Keeffe first visited the arid American west in August 1912, when she took a temporary job supervising drawing teachers in Amarillo, Texas. She was amazed by the dusty flatness of the Texas panhandle country, and by the immensity of the sky. Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, she was delighted rather than intimidated by this near-desert landscape, which was to become a central theme in her life's work. Although she was well read in aesthetic theory she began to trust her own style, rather than relying on what she had learned in classes, and she found a way to convey the beauty of a landscape that many contemporaries saw as forbidding and alien. She also fought successfully at the school board level to change the method of school art teaching; she abandoned textbooks and encouraged the children to draw in their own way from things around them. "Self-expression," now common in art teaching, was revolutionary then.

Back East after her two years in Texas, and now teaching in a small South Carolina college, O'Keeffe sent some of her black-and-white charcoal drawings to a New York friend, Anita Pollitzer . Impressed, Pollitzer took them to the avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose gallery, known by its Fifth Avenue address simply as "291," was the home of the "Photo-Secession" group and a venue of modern artists and photographers. Stieglitz was a larger-than-life figure, passionate, argumentative, intensely partisan in favor of the daring young artists of the age, and the subject of fierce loves and hatreds. He was delighted with O'Keeffe's works too, saying they were the best art work he had seen by a woman and that they, almost alone among contemporary American works, were not influenced by French models. He hung them in his gallery, without even asking for O'Keeffe's consent. It was a great honor and opportunity for her, and after an initial protest she was soon reconciled to his having taken the liberty.

Still poor and in need of work, she completed her formal training as an art teacher at Columbia Teachers College, finally studying under Arthur Wesley Dow himself, and gaining from him a new appreciation for the principles of composition in oriental art. She then returned to Texas in 1916 to teach at West Texas Normal College in Canyon, about 20 miles south of Amarillo. She wrote Stieglitz and Pollitzer frequent enthusiastic letters about the setting, in which she took regular marathon walks. Just after arriving, she told Pollitzer: "The whole sky—and there is so much of it out here—was just blazing—and gray-blue clouds were rioting all through the hotness of it—and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it." Although she continued to trust her own artistic vision, she was also reading Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, with its influential theory of colors. Kandinsky and the vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson both believed that

particular colors had social, psychological, and even political implications and influences. O'Keeffe also followed them by believing in the possibility of painting musical effects. Her painting Blue and Green Music (1919) is one of her best-known attempts to make this connection.

Her correspondence and friendship with Stieglitz (who was separated from his wife, Emmeline Obermeyer Stieglitz ) turned into a romance, and after another year they became lovers even though he was 23 years her senior. Changing conditions, personal and political (the First World War) had led to the closing of his gallery, 291, and the termination of his journal, Camera Work, which had been about to run a major article on O'Keeffe's work. Even so, he had enough money to support her and give her much-needed time to paint, so she was able to give up her teaching job. He took hundreds of photographs of her, including numerous now-famous nude studies, which intensified New York art circles' gossip about the couple.

They married in December 1924, after his divorce, though O'Keeffe continued to use her own surname throughout life. Stieglitz staged a major show of her work in 1923 at the Anderson Galleries, New York, which drew a lot of press coverage. Some of it, written in the idiom of Freudian psychology, which was just then becoming popular, claimed that the abstract paintings, and the close-up flower paintings in which she had more recently specialized, were really graphic expressions of female sexuality. Critic Paul Rosenfeld, for example, said that the paint in some of her works "appears licked on with the point of the tongue, so vibrant and lyrical are they," and that "the essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures." A satirical squib in The New Yorker claimed of her next exhibition (1926) that "psychiatrists have been sending their patients up to see O'Keeffe's canvases…. If we are to believe the evidence the gallery is littered with mental crutches, eye bandages, and slings for souls. They limp to the shrine of Saint Georgia and they fly away on the wings of the libido." O'Keeffe denied claims like these but acknowledged that some customers probably heard the titillating theories about her work and "bought the paintings with their ears rather than their eyes." Annual shows and critical admiration led to rapid increases in the prices she could ask, and in 1928 six of her flower paintings sold for what was then the massive price, for works by a living artist, of $25,000. Success, critical and commercial, meant that she could now devote herself entirely to painting.

My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.

—Georgia O'Keeffe

With Stieglitz, she spent winters in New York City and summers at his family home by Lake George in upstate New York—near the Art Students League school where she had spent the summer of 1908. Single-minded and dedicated, she concentrated on painting during all the daylight hours, dressed plainly, was usually quiet and reserved, and made a marked contrast to his gregarious, argumentative art-world friends and family. She did, however, have an explosive temper if disturbed at work, and her tolerance for children—she had none of her own—was low. To escape the noise and company, she began to work in an old shed, the "shanty," on the estate, and did numerous pictures of it and other vernacular American buildings in the following years. She enjoyed the solitude and silence of night-time trips on the lake in a rowboat with Stieglitz, which also prompted several paintings. O'Keeffe rarely theorized about her own work: she was matter-of-fact and down to earth in her remarks about it, and far more meaning has been read into it by other observers than from her own claims. A grateful artist and friend, Marsden Hartley, wrote that "she has no preachment to offer and utters no rubbish on the subject of life and its problems."

Her paintings of Lake George and the surrounding hills, meanwhile, influenced Stieglitz's own work. Hitherto, he had not devoted much energy to photographing nature, but under O'Keeffe's tutelage he began a now-famous series of photographs of clouds, the "Equivalent" series, whose abstract blacks and whites are reminiscent of her sky paintings. Similarly her flower paintings drew his attention to the abstract possibilities inherent in nature photography. Conversely, many of his cityscapes inspired her own skyscraper paintings of the mid-1920s, with the same strong geometric lines but a higher level of abstraction and simplification.

O'Keeffe loved the desert country of the southwest and was eager to return, but Stieglitz had a heart condition which made him reluctant to travel. He was afraid that the 6,000-foot elevation of her favorite New Mexico places would bring on breathing difficulties or even a heart attack. O'Keeffe, annoyed by his reluctance to come with her (he never did visit New Mexico) but undeterred, began taking annual trips without him, driving out west in a Ford Model A. In the years after 1930, she settled into paintings which mixed recognizable objects, such as the mesas and rock outcrops of the Western landscape, or the skulls of sheep and cattle, with abstract color field backgrounds.

For a while, she was a frequent visitor to the artistic colony at Taos run by Mabel Dodge Luhan , an eccentric patron of the arts whose fourth husband, Tony Luhan, was a local Pueblo Indian. D.H. and Frieda Lawrence were among the distinguished artists and writers who spent time at Taos, which developed a reputation for both homosexual and heterosexual promiscuity. O'Keeffe had numerous affairs with both men and women in the 1920s, with Mabel Luhan herself, and with the artist Paul Strand and the African-American poet Jean Toomer. When Mabel Luhan was back East in a hospital, O'Keeffe even had a fling with Tony Luhan and wrote about it in detail to Mabel. As biographer Benita Eisler remarks of this episode: "That she was frequently and gratuitously cruel is documented by all those who knew her."

O'Keeffe's fame and fortune were secure by the late 1920s. In 1927, when she was only 40, she was given the unusual honor of a major retrospective

exhibition by the Brooklyn Museum. Even after the Wall Street Crash, when the Great Depression was making life difficult for many artists, O'Keeffe prospered. She was among the very few artists whose works continued to command good sales and high prices. She was given a $10,000 commission for decorating Elizabeth Arden 's beauty salon in New York in 1934, one of the worst years of the Depression, a job she undertook over Stieglitz's protest against murals as an art form. Her numerous affairs and her knowledge that Stieglitz also had many lovers led to a growing estrangement between them, and in the early 1930s O'Keeffe had a succession of nervous breakdowns.

After recuperating at the Ghost Ranch, a remote New Mexico getaway for the rich 70 miles northwest of Santa Fe, O'Keeffe decided to settle there for the whole of every summer and bought a house in the village of Abiquiu. Extensively remodeled by O'Keeffe, it was a beautiful, low-profile design in adobe with projecting log beams, and became a central motif in many of her later paintings. Its flat roof and the simple ladders she used to climb there recur in dozens of them, as do New Mexico's roadside crosses, adobe buildings, and animal bones. The finely painted bones, notably cow skulls and deer antlers, became one of her trademark images, and in 1938 Life magazine ran an article about them, "Georgia O'Keeffe Turns Dead Bones to Live Art," which included Ansel Adams' photographs of her dragging a half-decayed cow's head and ribs to her studio.

Adams was one of the great Western photographers of the century—the two of them were mutual admirers, and one of their camping trips to Arizona together gave rise to another of her most famous works, From the Faraway Nearby, in which a deer skull with elaborate antlers hovers over a desert and mountain landscape. Numerous other artists, including her friend Marsden Hartley, had enjoyed visiting and painting New Mexico, but the landscape made a profounder impression on O'Keeffe than on any other. She became quite proprietorial about it, and gave her own names to many of the distinctive landforms she encountered, such as "Black Place" and "White Place," each of which she painted repeatedly over the following years. She continued to spend each winter in New York, and despite their storms she and Stieglitz still lived together.

The Museum of Modern Art devoted a show to her works in 1946, the first time since its creation 17 years before that it had given an entire exhibition to one woman. Later that year, however, Stieglitz's death finally ended their long and immensely productive relationship. O'Keeffe began to travel widely, driving 5,600 miles through Mexico on one excursion, and making her first visit to Europe in 1953, as adventurous as ever though she was now in her mid-60s. A visit to the Peruvian Andes in 1956 led to a new series of paintings and appears to have been more influential on her continued development than her belated visit to Paris, the old center of Western art. In 1959, she spent three months wandering around the world, traveling westwards through the Far East, Middle East, and southern Europe. Visiting Italy for the first time at the age of 72, she declared the great Roman monuments, classical and Catholic, "extraordinarily vulgar," especially by comparison with the more manageable scale of palaces and temples in the Middle East.

Her status, meanwhile, continued to grow. Further recognition came in 1950 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art used one of her cow skull paintings as the cover for its exhibition of "One Hundred American Painters of the 20th Century." By then she was also the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, and rich enough to be able to buy a second spectacular New Mexico house. During the 1950s, the vogue for Abstract Expressionism, and the rapid succession of art fads in the 1960s, temporarily eclipsed O'Keeffe's reputation. However, a massive retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum in 1970, supervised by O'Keeffe herself, revitalized her reputation for a new generation, and enabled her to enjoy a long, golden twilight in her old age.

O'Keeffe continued to work hard and because she often completed a painting in one or two days (and lived to the age of 98) her total output was immense. She experimented with paintings based on views from the air in the 1960s, when she flew often, some of which, reduced to planes of white cloud and blue sky, were reminiscent of the contemporaneous "color field" Abstract Expressionists. The biggest of them, Sky Above Clouds IV, was 24-feet long. She began it in 1962 and, returning periodically, finished it in 1965, which was quite different from her usual practice of working constantly on one canvas until it was done. It was the biggest painting of her career, and now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few museums big enough to accommodate it. It became, in effect, the signature piece from the last phase of her career. As critic and biographer Charles Eldredge remarks of her old age: "The long and sustained applause for O'Keeffe and her work was fueled by forces in the world around her," including "a resurgent feminist movement's search for Founding Mothers; and an aging population's fascination with geriatric productivity." In her last years, she suffered from deteriorating eyesight. Ever resourceful, she switched to throwing pots, relying more on her sense of touch. She also gathered up drawings, letters, and fragmentary writings and compiled them as an unconventional autobiography, Georgia O'Keeffe (1976). Her companion in these last years was a young sculptor and ceramic artist, Juan Hamilton, who was strikingly similar in appearance to the way Stieglitz had looked 60 or 70 years earlier. He helped her with practical and artistic tasks, and tried to keep at bay the growing number of artistic pilgrims coming uninvited to visit her in Abiquiu. They became close friends and, after her death in March 1986, he scattered her ashes from one of her favorite New Mexico mountain tops.

Adato, Perry Miller

American film director. Born in Yonkers, New York; studied at the Marshalov School of Drama and the New School for Social Research, both in New York.

Perry Miller Adato was the first woman to win an award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) with her 1977 documentary on Georgia O'Keeffe . Aired on Public Broadcasting System (PBS), it was also exhibited at a London film festival. Adato's documentaries on Carl Sandburg (1982) and Eugene O'Neill (1986) were also honored by the DGA. Other documentaries feature Gertrude Stein, Mary Cassatt, Louise Nevelson , Pablo Picasso, and Dylan Thomas. Perry Adato began her career working as director of the Film Advertising Center in New York through the 1950s and 1960s. She was then a film consultant and researcher for CBS in New York before becoming an associate producer, then producer, of cultural documentary films for WNET, the Public Broadcasting System in New York City. In 1984, Adato received an honorary doctorate (LHD) from Illinois Wesleyan University.

In 1987, 438,000 visited her retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the summer of 1997, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, dedicated to her art, opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The museum was the result of the efforts of Anne Marion , a Texas cattle baron, and her husband John. The opening exhibit served as a "walk-through of O'Keeffe's career," reported Time. "Through it all runs a whiff of pure Americana, a longing for an untroubled world sprung from native soil. 'It is breathtaking as one rises up over the world one has been living in,' O'Keeffe once wrote, 'and looks down at it stretching away and away.'"

sources and suggested reading:

Castro, Jan Garden. The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe. NY: Crown, 1985.

Cowart, J., and J. Hamilton. Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1981.

Eisler, Benita. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. NY: Doubleday, 1991.

Eldredge, Charles C. Georgia O'Keeffe. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Hoffman, Katherine. An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O'Keeffe. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Hogrefe, Jeffrey. O'Keeffe: The Life of an American Legend. NY: Bantam, 1992.

Lisle, Lauri. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. Seaview, 1980.

Madoff, Steven Henry. "O'Keeffe Enshrined," in Time. July 28, 1997.

Peters, Sarah W. Becoming O'Keeffe. NY: Abbeville Press, 1991.

Pollitzer, Anita. A Woman on Paper. NY: Simon and Schuster-Touchstone, 1988.

Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. NY: Harper and Row, 1989.


Stieglitz-O'Keeffe Archive, Yale University; Newberry Library, Chicago; Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

related media:

"Georgia O'Keeffe" (60-min.), documentary by Perry Miller Adato which includes an interview with O'Keeffe, aired on Public Broadcasting System (PBS), 1977, and won the Red Ribbon from the American Film Festival.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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O'Keeffe, Georgia (1887–1986)

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