“If ever there was a raging, blazing soul mounting to the skies it is that of Georgia O’Keeffe.”
New Yorker Magazine, 1926
By Michael Ann Sullivan
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 18, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, eight miles north of Madison. She was the second of seven children of Frank and Ida O’Keeffe, the owners of a prosperous dairy farm. In 1902, the family moved to the warmer climate of Williamsburg, Virginia, in an attempt to outdistance the tuberculosis rampant in the O’Keeffe clan. This move and several other poor financial decisions by Frank O’Keeffe, impoverished the family, making Georgia’s early years as an art student and artist difficult and tenuous.
O’Keeffe showed an early aptitude for drawing and painting and made a decision after she finished high school to pursue art as a career. This was a daring dream for a woman in the early twentieth century. The circle of professional painters in the United States included few women and the avant guard artists in Europe were almost entirely male—Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse. Only women of independent means, like Gertrude Stein, had the hope of pursuing an artistic calling. Women of the lower middle class or women, like O’Keeffe, in reduced circumstances could look forward to the most menial of employment.
O’Keeffe scrambled to obtain training and education in art–often taking classes for a year and then taking time off to earn more money for study. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago (1906-1906), the Art Students League of New York (1907-1908), the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (1912), and Columbia Teachers College in New York (1914-1915). To support her art, she worked in Chicago for a stint as a free-lance illustrator in the advertising business. She also taught art at Columbia College in South Carolina and West Texas State Normal College.
The major influences on O’Keeffe’s work were the theories of Arthur Wesley Dow and the new medium of artistic photography. Dow taught painting at Columbia Teachers College and he advocated the representation of an artist’s personal ideas in a harmonious composition. Dow’s ideas now seem tame but a century ago his theories and textbook, Composition, inspired a whole generation of painters. O’Keeffe explained: “This man had one dominating idea: to fill a space in a beautiful way… .” The new work in photography also informed O’Keeffe’s images. Her paintings often used the framing and foreshortening that the photographer employed with the lens, and in the dark room. Her paintings, of huge flowers or bleached bones, cropped in unusual ways, mirrored the photographer’s gaze.
In 1916, while teaching in South Carolina, O’Keeffe sent some charcoal abstract drawings to her friend Anita Pollitzer, a fellow student at Columbia Teachers College. Pollitzer brazenly took her sketches to the gallery of famous photographer Alfred Steiglitz. Upon seeing O’Keeffe’s drawings, Steiglitz immediately recognized their potential and reputedly told Pollitzer: “Finally a woman on paper.” He also told Pollitzer that he might like to show O’Keeffe’s work in the future.
Steiglitz owned the fashionable 291 gallery in New York and made a name for himself as a fine art photographer. In the early 20th century, Steiglitz worked tirelessly to elevate photography to an art form. In 1902, he founded the Photo-Secession, a group of radical photographers, named after painters in Munich that broke away from the traditional academy in 1892. Camera Work, the official publication of the group, became one of the leading art journals in America. Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, a fellow Photo-Secessionist, opened 291 to highlight their work. Steiglitz and Steichen also became swept away with the new avant guard in Europe and introduced many modern artists to America through their gallery. Gallery 291 displayed the works of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Constantin Brancusi, Henri Rousseau, Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse.
O’Keeffe began corresponding with Steiglitz shortly after Pollitzer’s visit to 291. The next summer while in New York, O’Keeffe introduced herself to Steiglitz at the gallery. Steiglitz was immediately taken with the 28-year-old O’Keeffe—showing her the work of artists he considered important, lending her paintings, taking her to lunch. He even mounted her charcoal drawings in an exhibit of unknown artists. The public reacted strongly to O’Keeffe’s abstracts, the work of an unknown schoolteacher. Many found the drawings sensual and erotic. When O’Keeffe accepted a teaching position in Canyon, Texas, in the fall, Steiglitz continued to write her words of encouragement and praise.
On 3 April 1917, Steiglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition. The watercolors and charcoals of South Carolina and Texas received similar critical acclaim. The art critic Henry Terrell noted: “Her strange art affects people variously…many feel its pathos, some its poignancy, and artists especially wonder at its technical resourcefulness for dealing with what hitherto had been deemed inexpressible.” There were no women abstract painters at the time and O’Keeffe’s paintings caused a sensation. Steiglitz and the critics made much of the fact that O’Keeffe was a woman and read her images as the embodiment of female sexual desire. O’Keeffe herself downplayed the erotic in her imagery and wished her work to be judged on its own merits rather than evaluated based on her gender.
The fifty-three year old Steiglitz wrote O’Keeffe almost daily for the next year and a half. Their relationship deepened despite their differences in age and Steiglitz’s twenty-four year marriage. In 1918, worried about O’Keeffe’s health and financial situation, Steiglitz sent their mutual friend Paul Strand west to retrieve O’Keeffe from Texas. O’Keeffe had spent the spring months in bed recovering from a debilitating bout with influenza. O’Keeffe agreed to leave Texas and come to New York. Steiglitz installed her in his niece’s studio and nursed her back to full health. Their mutual attraction and increasing intimacy blossomed into romance and Steiglitz left his wife Emma shortly thereafter. Steiglitz persuaded O’Keeffe to abandon teaching and offered to support her the following year so that she could pursue her art full-time.
O’Keeffe experimented boldly the year of 1919. Her paintings from that time include a variety of abstract watercolors, oils, and charcoals. She also began to paint large flowers that overflowed the canvas—a theme that would recur repeatedly in her work. A series of bright red canna lilies painted during this time sold in 1928 for the unheard of sum of $125,000 to a French collector. This was the highest sale, at the time, for a living artist.
In 1924, O’Keeffe and Steiglitz married after his wife finally granted him a divorce. The couple lived in Manhattan during the winter and summered at the Steiglitz family home in Lake George. They often worked together—he photographing, she painting subjects that captured their eye—the sky, apples, the New York skyline. Steiglitz avidly promoted his wife’s work. Although 291 closed in 1917, after O’Keeffe’s first show, Steiglitz organized annual exhibitions for O’Keeffe at the Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. During the 1920s, O’Keeffe’s reputation and fame kept growing. Each exhibition brought fresh acclaim. The New Yorker review of her 1926 show exclaimed, “If ever there was a raging, blazing soul mounting to the skies it is that of Georgia O’Keeffe.”
Despite their fruitful partnership, O’Keeffe and Steiglitz experienced their share of struggles. Both artists had very different temperaments. O’Keeffe craved solitude, while Stieglitz loved company and collaboration. Steiglitz also dominated O’Keeffe and demanded her attention and time. As Steiglitz grew older and suffered from ill health, O’Keeffe began to feel trapped and claustrophobic. Her work for the 1929 exhibition did not have the same vitality as previous paintings and she began to look for fresh inspiration.
Many of her friends—Paul Strand and Dorothy Brett—began to sing the praises of the Southwest. Mabel Dodge Luhan, writer and socialite, while in New York that winter, invited O’Keeffe to come stay at her home in Taos. That summer O’Keeffe and Mabel Dodge Luhan boarded the train bound for Lamy, New Mexico. After a brief stay in Santa Fe, they relocated to Los Gallos, Luhan’s Taos residence. Luhan situated the women in their own private casita, separate from the fourteen room main house. She also gave O’Keeffe a studio to work in. O’Keeffe’s response to New Mexico was immediate and overwhelming—“Well! Well! Well! This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this.” O’Keeffe spent her summer with Strand wildly happy and carefree. She and Strand explored the desert and Taos Pueblo with Luhan’s husband Tony, who granted them access to his people’s tribal lands. The New Mexico landscape also inspired O’Keeffe to take her painting in a new direction. The paintings she exhibited upon her return to New York captured the land in its stark beauty and portrayed the Spanish and Pueblo people who had made it their home for centuries. The public once again responded to O’Keeffe’s images with awe.
O’Keeffe returned every summer to New Mexico to paint. During the 1930s, she stayed at Ghost Ranch, a resort near Abiquiu owned by Arthur Pack, the owner of Nature magazine. O’Keeffe often took solitary walks in the desert painting outdoors or collecting objects that fascinated her. Her 1932 show featured images of the bleached bones of animals found on her walks that she juxtaposed with flowers. In one painting, she combined a cow skull with the American flag. Many viewers reacted with shock thinking the images morbid and disrespectful. O’Keeffe explained, “I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”
In 1940, she purchased Rancho de Burros, one of the adobe bungalows on the Ranch. In 1945, tired of such remote living conditions, she purchased and renovated a second home in the village of Abiquiu. The Abiquiu adobe was a former hacienda owned by the Catholic Church and offered O’Keeffe water and rich soil for a garden. Steiglitz suffered a massive stroke the following year and died. O’Keeffe spent several years settling his estate before moving permanently to New Mexico in 1948. She continued to paint the desert, sky, flora, and fauna of New Mexico for the next 30 years. In the mid-1970s, her eyesight began to deteriorate and she had to abandon painting. She switched to clay—a medium that did not rely on sight. She continued to produce works of art until 1984 when her health finally failed. She died in 1986 at the age of ninety-eight.
Baca, Elmo. Mabel’s Santa Fe and Taos: Bohemian Legends, 1900-1950. Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publishers, 2000.
Berry, Michael. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1984. [quote in paragraph 12, 58; paragraph 15, 70]
Bloemink, Barbara J. Georgia O’Keeffe: Canyon Suite. New York: George Braziller in association with Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design of Kansas City Art Institute, 1995.
Drohojowska-Philip, Hunter. Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
Merrill, Christopher and Ellen Bradbury. From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,1992.
Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
American modernism, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Dorothy Brett, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Taos Pueblo, Los Gallos, Santa Fe, Rancho de Burros, Abiquiu, New York, Chicago; Georgia O'Keefe
(c) Michael Ann Sullivan. All rights reserved.