Georgia Totto O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) was an American artist.
Born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe first came to the attention of the New York art community in 1916, several decades after women had gained access to art training in America’s colleges and universities, and before any of its women artists were well known or highly celebrated. Within a decade, she had distinguished herself as one of America’s most important modern artists, a position she maintained throughout her life. As a result, O’Keeffe not only carved out a significant place for women painters in an area of the American art community that had been exclusive to and is still dominated by men, but also she had become one of America’s most celebrated cultural icons well before her death at age 98 in 1986.
Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 13 Special, 1916/1917, Charcoal on paper
Her abstract imagery of the 1910s and early 1920s is among the most innovative of any work produced in the period by American artists. She revolutionized the tradition of flower painting in the 1920s by making large-format paintings of enlarged blossoms, presenting them close up as if seen through a magnifying lens. And her depictions of New York buildings, most of which date from the same decade, have been recognized as among the most compelling of any paintings of the modern city. Beginning in 1929, when she first began working part of the year in Northern New Mexico—which she made her permanent home in 1949—O’Keeffe depicted subjects specific to that area. Through paintings of its unique landscape configurations, adobe churches, cultural objects, and the bones and rocks she collected from the desert floor, she ultimately laid claim to this area of the American Southwest, which earlier had been celebrated primarily by male artists; the area around where she worked and lived has become known as “O’Keeffe Country.”
Georgia O’Keeffe as a Teaching Assistant to Alon Bement at the University of Virginia in 1915
Georgia O’Keeffe was born November 15, 1887, in a farmhouse near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin Her parents, Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida Totto O’Keeffe, were dairy farmers. Her father was of Irish descent. Ida Totto’s father, George Victor Totto, for whom Georgia O’Keeffe was named, was a Hungarian count who came to America in 1848.
Georgia was the first female and the second of seven O’Keeffe children. O’Keeffe attended Town Hall School in Sun Prairie. By age ten she had decided to become an artist, and she and her sister received art instruction from local watercolorist Sara Mann. O’Keeffe attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin, as a boarder between 1901 and 1902. In Fall 1902 the O’Keeffes moved from Wisconsin to the close-knit neighborhood of Peacock Hill in Williamsburg, Virginia. Georgia stayed in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended Madison High School, then joined her family in Virginia in 1903. She completed high school as a boarder at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia (now Chatham Hall), and graduated in 1905.
O’Keeffe studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906. In 1907, she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied under William Merritt Chase. In 1908, she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Mona Shehab (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school atLake George, New York. While in the city in 1908, O’Keeffe attended an exhibition of Rodin’s watercolors at the 291, owned by her future husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Alfred Stieglitz photograph of O’Keeffe. New York City, 1918
O’Keeffe abandoned the idea of pursuing a career as an artist in the fall of 1908, claiming that she could never distinguish herself as an artist within the mimetic tradition, which had formed the basis of her art training.She took a job in Chicago as a commercial artist. She did not paint for four years and said that the smell of turpentine made her sick. She was inspired to paint again in 1912, when she attended a class at the University of Virginia Summer School, where she was introduced to the innovative ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow by Alon Bement. Dow encouraged artists to express themselves using line, color, and shading harmoniously. From 1912-14, she taught art in the public schools in Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.She attended Teachers College of Columbia University from 1914–15, where she took classes from Dow, who greatly influenced O’Keeffe’s thinking about the process of making art. She served as a teaching assistant to Bement during the summer from 1913–16 and taught at Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina in the fall of 1915, where she completed a series of highly innovative charcoal abstractions. After further course work at Columbia in the spring of 1916 and summer teaching for Bement, she took a job as head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College from fall 1916 to February 1918, the fledgling West Texas A&M University in Canyon just south of Amarillo. While there, she often visited the Palo Duro Canyon, making its forms a subject in her work.
Blue and Green Music, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1921
Early in 1916, Anita Pollitzer took some of the charcoal drawings O’Keeffe had made in the fall of 1915, which she had mailed to Pollitzer from South Carolina, to Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 gallery. He told Pollitzer that the drawings were the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while”, and that he would like to show them. O’Keeffe had first visited 291 in 1908, but did not speak with Stieglitz then, although she came to have high regard for him and to know him in the spring of 1916, when she was in New York at Teachers College. In April 1916, he exhibited ten of her drawings at 291.Although O’Keeffe knew that Stieglitz was planning to exhibit her work, he had not told her when, and she was surprised to learn that her work was on view; she confronted Stieglitz over the drawings but agreed to let them remain on exhibit. Stieglitz organized O’Keeffe’s first solo show at 291 in April 1917, which included oil paintings and watercolors completed in Texas.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935, The Brooklyn Museum
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe corresponded frequently beginning in 1916, and in June 1918, she accepted Stieglitz’s invitation to move to New York to devote all of her time to her work. The two were deeply in love, and shortly after her arrival, they began living together, even though the then married Stieglitz was 23 years her senior. That year Stieglitz first took O’Keeffe to his family home at the village of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and they spent part of every year there until 1929, when O’Keeffe spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico. They married in 1924 after Stieglitz received a long-awaited divorce from his first wife.
Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe when she visited him in New York to see her 1917 exhibition. By 1937, when he retired from photography, he had made more than 350 portraits of her. Most of the more erotic photographs were made in the 1910s and early 1920s. In February 1921, forty-five of Stieglitz’s photographs, including many of O’Keeffe, some of which depicted her in the nude, were exhibited in a retrospective exhibition at the Anderson Galleries that created a public sensation
Pineapple Bud, oil on canvas painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1939
Beginning in 1918, O’Keeffe came to know the many early American modernists who were part of Stieglitz’s circle of artists, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. Strand’s photography, as well as that of Stieglitz and his many photographer friends, inspired O’Keeffe’s work. Soon after 1918, O’Keeffe began working primarily in oil, a shift away from having worked primarily in watercolor in the earlier 1910s. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe began making large-scale paintings of natural forms at close range, as if seen through a magnifying lens. In 1924 she painted her first large-scale flower painting Petunia, No. 2, which was first exhibited in 1925. She also completed a significant body of paintings of New York buildings, such as City Night and New York—Night, 1926, and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York, 1927.
Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931
O’Keeffe turned to working more representationally in the 1920s in an effort to move her critics away from Freudian interpretations. Her earlier work had been mostly abstract, but works such as Black Iris III(1926) evoke a veiled representation of female genitalia while also accurately depicting the center of an iris. Moreover, the centers of flowers are androgynous and can hardly be understood exclusively as feminine. O’Keeffe consistently denied the validity of Freudian interpretations of her art, but fifty years after it had first been interpreted in that way, many prominent feminist artists assessed her work similarly — in essential terms — such as Judy Chicago, who gave O’Keeffe a prominent place in her The Dinner Party. Although 1970s feminists celebrated O’Keeffe as the originator of “female iconography”, O’Keeffe rejected their celebration of her work and refused to cooperate with any of their projects. What they were saying sounded too much to her like what the men had written about it in the 1910s and 1920s and overlooked the larger issue: that her paintings reveal vital parallels between animate and highly sensual forces in nature and humans.
Beginning in 1923, Stieglitz organized annual exhibitions of O’Keeffe’s work. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe had become known as one of the most important American artists. Her work commanded high prices; in 1928, Stieglitz masterminded a sale of six of her calla lily paintings for US$25,000, which was the largest sum ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist. Though the sale fell through, Stieglitz’s promotion of the potential sale drew extensive media attention.
In 1938, the advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son approached O’Keeffe about creating two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Food Company) to use in their advertising. Other artists who produced paintings of Hawaii for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s advertising include Lloyd Sexton, Jr., Millard Sheets, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Isamu Noguchi, and Miguel Covarrubias She arrived in Honolulu February 8, 1939, aboard the SS Lurline, and spent nine weeks in Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the island of Hawaii. She painted flowers, landscapes, and traditional Hawaiian fishhooks. However, she did not paint the requested pineapple until after the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sent a plant to her New York studio.
By 1929, O’Keeffe acted on her increasing need to find a new source of inspiration for her work and to escape summers at Lake George, where she was surrounded by the Stieglitz family and their friends. O’Keeffe had considered finding a studio separate from Lake George in upstate New York and had also thought about spending the summer in Europe, but opted instead to travel to Santa Fe, with her friend Rebecca Strand. The two set out by train in May, 1929 and soon after their arrival, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved them to her house in Taos and provided them with studios. O’Keeffe went on many pack trips exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region that summer and later visited the nearby D. H. Lawrence Ranch, where she completed her now famous oil painting, The Lawrence Tree, currently owned by the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford,Connecticut.”
While in Taos in 1929, O’Keeffe visited and and painted the nearby historical St. Francis of Assisi Missionary at Ranchos de Taos. She made several paintings of the church, as had many artists, and her painting of a fragment of it silhouetted against the sky captured it in a different way.
Between 1929 and 1949, O’Keeffe spent part of nearly every year working in New Mexico. She collected rocks and bones from the desert floor and made them and the distinctive architectural and landscape forms of the area subjects in her work. She also went on several camping trips with friends, visiting important sites in the Southwest, and in 1961, she and others, including photographers Eliot Porter and Todd Webb, went on a rafting trip down the Colorado River aboutGlen Canyon, Utah.
Late in 1932, O’Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown that was brought on, in part, because she was unable to complete a Radio City Music Hall mural project that had fallen behind schedule. She was hospitalized in early 1933 and did not paint again until January 1934. In the spring of 1933 and 1934, O’Keeffe recuperated in Bermuda, and she returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934. In August of that year, she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu, for the first time and decided immediately to live there; in 1940, she purchased a house on the ranch property. The varicolored cliffs of Ghost Ranch inspired some of her most famous landscapes. In 1977, O’Keeffe wrote: “[the] cliffs over there are almost painted for you — you think — until you try to paint them.” Among guests to visit her at the ranch over the years were Charles and Anne Lindbergh, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, poet Allen Ginsberg, and photographer Ansel Adams.
Known as a loner, O’Keeffe explored the land she loved often in her Ford Model A, which she purchased and learned to drive in 1929. She often talked about her fondness for Ghost Ranch and Northern New Mexico, as in 1943, when she explained: “Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’. It is a place I have painted before . . . even now I must do it again.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, O’Keeffe’s reputation and popularity continued to grow, earning her numerous commissions. Her work was included in exhibitions in and around New York. She completed Summer Days, a painting featuring a cow’s skull adorned with various wildflowers, against a desert background in 1936, and it became one of her most famous and well-known works. During the 1940s O’Keeffe had two one-woman retrospectives, the first at the Art Institute of Chicago(1943), and the second in 1946 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan, the first retrospective MOMA held for a woman artist. O’Keeffe enjoyed many accolades and honorary degrees from numerous universities. In the mid-1940s, the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan sponsored a project to establish the first catalogue of her work.
From the Faraway, Nearby, 1938
As early as 1936, O’Keeffe developed an intense interest in what is called the “Black Place”, which was about 150 miles west of her Ghost Ranch house, and she made an extensive series of paintings of this site in the 1940s. She traveled and camped there often with her friend, Maria Chabot, and in 1945 with Eliot Porter as well as in subsequent years 1959, and 1977. O’Keeffe said that the Black Place resembled “a mile of elephants with gray hills and white sand at their feet.” At times the wind was so strong when she was painting there that she had trouble keeping her canvas on the easel. When the heat from the sun became intense, she crawled under her car for shade. The Black Place still remains remote and uninhabited.
She also made paintings of the “White Place”, a white rock formation located near her Abiquiu house. In 1945, O’Keeffe bought a second house, an abandoned hacienda in Abiquiu, some 18 miles (26 km) south of Ghost Ranch. The Abiquiu house was renovated through 1949 by Chabot.
Black Place II, 1944
Shortly after O’Keeffe arrived for the summer in New Mexico in 1946, Stieglitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis. She immediately flew to New York to be with him. He died on July 13, 1946. She buried his ashes at Lake George. She spent the next three years mostly in New York settling his estate, and moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949. From 1946 through the 1950s, she made the architectural forms of her Abiquiu house — patio wall and door — subjects in her work. Another distinctive painting of the decade was Ladder to the Moon, 1958. From her first world travels in the late 1950s, O’Keeffe produced an extensive series of paintings of clouds, such as Above the Clouds I, 1962/1963. These were inspired by her views from the windows of airplanes. Below is an external link to a color image of one of these aerial cloudscape canvases.
O’Keeffe met photographer Todd Webb in the 1940s, and after his move to New Mexico in 1961, he often made photographs of her, as did numerous other important American photographers, who consistently presented O’Keeffe as a “loner, a severe figure and self-made person.” While O’Keeffe was known to have a “prickly personality”, Webb’s photographs portray her with a kind of “quietness and calm” suggesting a relaxed friendship, and revealing new contours of O’Keeffe’s character.
Black Iris, 1926
In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the fifty-member American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966. In the fall of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, the first retrospective exhibition of her work in New York since 1946, the year Stieglitz died. This exhibit did much to revive her public career.
Later years and death
In 1972, O’Keeffe’s eyesight was compromised by macular degeneration, leading to the loss of central vision and leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting without assistance in 1972, but continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984 Juan Hamilton, a young potter, appeared at her ranch house in 1973 looking for work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business manager until her death. Hamilton taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, and working with assistance, she produced clay pots and a series of works in watercolor. In 1976, she wrote a book about her art and allowed a film to be made about her in 1977. On January 10, 1977, President Gerald R. Ford presented O’Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
O’Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. In accordance with her wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered to the wind at the top of the Pedernal Mountain, over her beloved “faraway”.
Following O’Keeffe’s death, her family contested her will because codicils made to it in the 1980s had left all of her estate to Hamilton. The case was ultimately settled out of court in July 1987. The case became famous as case law in estate planning. A substantial part of her estate’s assets were transferred to the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, which dissolved in 2006, leaving these assets to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, established in Santa Fe in 1997 to perpetuate O’Keeffe’s artistic legacy. These assets included a large body of her work, photographs, archival materials, and her Abiquiu house, library, and property. The Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiu was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and is now owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
In 2006, a fossilized species of archosaur was named after O’Keeffe. Blocks originally quarried in 1947 and 1948 near O’Keeffe’s home at Ghost Ranch were opened fifty years after being collected. The fossil strongly resembles ornithomimiddinosaurs, but are actually more closely related to crocodiles. The specimen was named Effigia okeeffeae (“O’Keeffe’s Ghost”) in January 2006, “in honor of Georgia O’Keeffe for her numerous paintings of the badlands at Ghost Ranch and her interest in the Coelophysis Quarry when it was discovered”.
In 1991, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired the American Playhouse production A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, starring Jane Alexander as Georgia O’Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Alfred Stieglitz. Lifetime Television produced a biopic of Georgia O’Keeffe premiering on September 19, 2009, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Simmons as Jean Toomer, Ed Begley, Jr. as Stieglitz’ brother Lee, and Tyne Daly asMabel Dodge Luhan.
A new exhibit of O’Keeffe’s works at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which emphasizes her lesser-known abstract works, was on view from May 2010.
White Canadian Barn II, 1932
O’Keeffe, Georgia, Some Memories of Drawings,
Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe & Anita Pollitzer (ed C.Giboire).
Giboire, Clive, ed. Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe & Anita
Greenough, Sarah, ed. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933. Annotated edition.