Who Was Georgia O'Keeffe?
Artist Georgia O'Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz gave O'Keeffe her first gallery show in 1916, and the couple married in 1924. Considered the "mother of American modernism," O'Keeffe moved to New Mexico after her husband's death and was inspired by the landscape to create numerous well-known paintings. O'Keeffe died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
Early Life in Wisconsin and Virginia
Artist Georgia O'Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, on a wheat farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents grew up together as neighbors; her father Francis Calixtus O'Keeffe was Irish, and her mother Ida Totto was of Dutch and Hungarian heritage. Georgia, the second of seven children, was named after her Hungarian maternal grandfather George Totto.
O'Keeffe's mother, who had aspired to become a doctor, encouraged her children to become well-educated. As a child, O'Keeffe developed a curiosity about the natural world and an early interest in becoming an artist, which her mother encouraged by arranging lessons with a local artist. Art appreciation was a family affair for O'Keeffe: her two grandmothers and two of her sisters also enjoyed painting.
O'Keeffe continued to study art, as well as academic subjects at Sacred Heart Academy, a strict and exclusive high school in Madison, Wisconsin. While her family relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia in 1902, O'Keeffe lived with her aunt in Wisconsin and attended Madison High School. She joined her family in 1903 when she was 15 and already a budding artist driven by an independent spirit.
In Williamsburg, O'Keeffe attended Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school, where she was well-liked and stood out as an individual, who dressed and acted differently than other students. She also became known as a talented artist and was the art editor of the school yearbook.
Training as an Artist in Chicago and New York City
After graduating from high school, O'Keeffe went to Chicago where she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, studying with John Vanderpoel from 1905 to 1906. She ranked at the top of her competitive class, but contracted typhoid fever and had to take a year off to recuperate.
After she regained her health, O'Keeffe traveled to New York City in 1907 to continue her art studies. She took classes at the Art Students League where she learned realist painting techniques from William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora and Kenyon Cox. One of her still lives, Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot (1908), earned her the prize of attending the League's summer school in Lake George, New York.
While she continued to develop as an artist in the classroom, O'Keeffe expanded her ideas about art by visiting galleries, in particular, 291, founded by photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Located at 291 5th Avenue, Steichen's former studio, 291 was a pioneering gallery that elevated the art of photography and introduced the avant-garde work of modern European and American artists.
After a year of study in New York City, O'Keeffe returned to Virginia where her family had fallen on hard times: her mother was bedridden with tuberculosis and her father's business had gone bankrupt. Unable to afford to continue her art studies, O'Keeffe returned to Chicago in 1908 to work as a commercial artist. After two years, she returned to Virginia, eventually moving with her family to Charlottesville.
In 1912, she took an art class at the summer school of the University of Virginia, where she studied with Alon Bement. A faculty member of Teachers College at Columbia University, Bement introduced O'Keeffe to the revolutionary ideas of his Columbia colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, whose approach to composition and design was influenced by the principles of Japanese art. O'Keeffe began experimenting with her art, breaking from realism and developing her own visual expression through more abstract compositions.
As she experimented with her art, O'Keeffe taught art at public schools in Amarillo, Texas, from 1912 to 1914. She was also Bement's teaching assistant during the summers and took a class from Dow at Teacher's College. In 1915, while teaching at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, O'Keeffe began a series of abstract charcoal drawings and was one of the first American artists to practice pure abstraction," according to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
Love Affair with Stieglitz
O’Keeffe mailed a few of her drawings to Anita Pollitzer, a friend and former classmate, who showed the work to Stieglitz, the influential art dealer. Taken by O'Keeffe's work, he and O'Keeffe began a correspondence and, unbeknownst to her, he exhibited 10 of her drawings at 291 in 1916. She confronted him about the exhibit but allowed him to continue to show the work. In 1917, he presented her first solo show. A year later, she moved to New York, and Stieglitz found a place for her to live and work. He also provided financial support for her to focus on her art. Realizing their deep connection, the artists fell in love and began an affair. Stieglitz and his wife divorced, and he and O'Keeffe married in 1924. They lived in New York City and spent their summers in Lake George, New York, where Stieglitz's family had a home.
As an artist, Stieglitz, who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe, found in her a muse, taking over 300 photographs of her, including both portraits and nudes. As an art dealer, he championed her work and promoted her career. She joined Stieglitz's circle of artist friends including Steichen, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin and Paul Strand. Inspired by the vibrancy of the modern art movement, she began to experiment with perspective, painting larger-scale close-ups of flowers, the first of which was Petunia No. 2, which was exhibited in 1925, followed by works such as Black Iris (1926) and Oriental Poppies (1928). "If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small," O'Keeffe explained. "So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."
O'Keeffe also turned her artist's eye to New York City skyscrapers, the symbol of modernity, in paintings including City Night (1926), Shelton Hotel, New York No. 1 (1926) and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York (1927). Following numerous solo exhibitions, O'Keeffe had her first retrospective, Paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927. By this time, she had become one of the most important and successful American artists, which was a major achievement for a female artist in the male-dominated art world. Her pioneering success would make her a feminist icon for later generations.
Inspired by New Mexico
In the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe found a new direction for her art when she made her first visit to northern New Mexico. The landscape, architecture and local Navajo culture inspired her, and she would return to New Mexico, which she called "the faraway," in the summers to paint. During this period, she produced iconic paintings including Black Cross, New Mexico (1929), Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue (1931) and Ram’s Head, White Hollycock, Hills (1935), among other works.
In the 1940s, O’Keeffe’s work was celebrated in retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943) and at the Museum of Modern Art (1946), which was the museum’s first retrospective of a female artist’s work.
O'Keeffe split her time between New York, living with Stieglitz, and painting in New Mexico. She was particularly inspired by Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, and she decided to move into a house there in 1940. Five years later, O'Keeffe bought a second house in Abiquiú.
Back in New York, Stieglitz had begun to mentor Dorothy Norman, a young photographer who later helped manage his gallery, An American Place. The close relationship between Stieglitz and Norman eventually developed into an affair. In his later years, Stieglitz's health deteriorated and he suffered a fatal stroke on July 13, 1946, at the age of 82. O'Keeffe was with him when he died and was the executor of his estate.
Three years after Stieglitz's death, O'Keeffe moved to New Mexico in 1949, the same year she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the 1950s and 1960s, O'Keeffe spent much of her time traveling the world, finding new inspirations from the places she visited. Among her new work was a series depicting aerial views of clouds as is seen in Sky above Clouds, IV (1965). In 1970, a retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City renewed her popularity, especially among members of the feminist art movement.
Death and Legacy
In her later years, O'Keeffe suffered from macular degeneration and began to lose her eyesight. As a result of her failing vision, she painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972, however, her urge to create didn't falter. With the help of assistants, she continued to make art and she wrote the bestselling book Georgia O'Keeffe (1976). "I can see what I want to paint," she said at the age of 90. "The thing that makes you want to create is still there."
In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented O'Keeffe with the Medal of Freedom and, in 1985, she received the National Medal of Arts.
O'Keeffe died on March 6, 1986, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and her ashes were scattered at Cerro Pedernal, which is depicted in several of her paintings. The pioneering artist produced thousands of works over the course of her career, many of which are on exhibit at museums around the world. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico is dedicated to preserving the life, art and legacy of the artist, and offers tours of her home and studio, which is a national historic landmark.
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