The Makings of an Artist
Born on the 15th of November 1887, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe grew up on a farm located near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Raised in a family that stressed the importance of female education, young Georgia was encouraged by her mother to study art. She also took lessons in watercolour from Sara Mann, a local artist. From 1905 to 1906, she studied under John Vanderpoel at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Moving to New York City in the fall of 1907, O’Keeffe attended classes under artist-teacher William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League. She would not have been able to attend the League’s summer school in Lake George were it not for the prize she won for one of her still life paintings. Apart from Chase, O’Keeffe also learned traditional realist painting techniques under Kenyon Cox and F. Luis Mora. During her stay in New York City, O’Keeffe frequented the exhibitions at Gallery 291. Owned by Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer, the Gallery was one of the places that featured European avant-garde art in the United States. Her visits to the gallery allowed her to be exposed to the works of well-known European artists like Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. In 1908, Georgia took a job as a commercial artist in Chicago, leaving her pursuit of a career in art for four years.
Having attended a drawing class in 1912 at the summer school at the University of Virginia, O’Keeffe renewed her focus on her art. Under the tutelage of Alon Bement, O’Keeffe studied the works of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow’s revolutionary ideas that emphasised on design and composition gave an alternative to realism for O’Keeffe. She began experimenting on Dow’s theory of self-exploration in 1915 while she was teaching at Columbia College, South Carolina and West Texas. She was able to produce a series of charcoal paintings that expressed her ideas and feelings. Her charcoal drawings of ferns, flowers and other natural forms were simplified into abstracted lines and shapes yet were very expressive as well. She eventually sent these drawings to a friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer, who in turn showed them to Gallery 291’s Alfred Stieglitz.
Seeing her drawings, Stieglitz recognised O’Keeffe’s potential and began his correspondence with her. Stieglitz already had O’Keeffe’s work on exhibit, unbeknownst to her. Their professional relationship began after he sent her pictures of her work on exhibit. O’Keeffe continued teaching and in one of her visits to New York in 1917, she went to see her first solo exhibition at the 291. Their professional relationship eventually led to their love affair that would last until Stieglitz’s death. Stieglitz offered to support O’Keeffe financially for a year in 1918 so she could remain in New York and continue to paint. To focus on creating art, O’Keeffe took a leave of absence from teaching.
O’Keeffe was then introduced to Stieglitz’s fellow artist friends in 1920. The group included Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Paul Strand. Known as the Stieglitz Circle, they were the champions of modernism in the United States. O’Keefe became greatly influenced by Charles Sheeler’s Precisionism as well as Strand’s photography. O’Keeffe was also inspired by a camera’s capability to serve as a magnifying lens. These led to the creation of large-scale paintings featuring natural forms at close range. It was also around this time that O’Keeffe dropped watercolours in favour of oil paints. O’Keeffe’s work included depictions of flowers and architectural forms, like the New York skyscrapers. O’Keeffe was recognised as one of America’s most significant artists with her works commanding high prices. It was at around 1924 that Stieglitz divorced his wife and married O’Keeffe.
New Mexico, New Direction
The summer of 1929 found O’Keeffe in New Mexico as a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan in her ranch near Taos. Staying with the arts patron, O’Keeffe was charmed by New Mexico’s landscape, its barren lands and vistas. The uniqueness of the stark landscape, its regional architecture as well as indigenous art became O’Keeffe’s inspiration for the series of works she produced for the next two decades. O’Keeffe’s paintings captured the endless skies and beautiful landscape as well as the unique architectural structures. She also painted the bones she collected from the desert. She would constantly visit New Mexico to paint until 1949 when she decided to make it her home, three years after Stieglitz’s death.
O’Keeffe purchased two properties in New Mexico. Some of her works in the 1950s featured the forms of her door and patio wall of her Abiquiu home near Santa Fe.
O’Keeffe also travelled internationally, and her travels inspired her work as well. Her paintings would arouse a sense of the remarkable such as her paintings of Mount Fuji and the peaks of the mountains of Peru. At seventy-three, her work featured more of rivers and clouds in the skies.
O’Keeffe: The Later Years
O’Keeffe’s popularity grew during the 1930s to 1940s. It was also during this time that she was honoured with important retrospectives by the Art Institute of Chicago (1943) and the Museum of Modern Art (1946). O’Keeffe was the first woman whose works was given a retrospective by the latter. She was also given membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. O’Keefe was awarded the Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. The 1950s to 1960s saw a decline in her popularity. Her career, as well as interest in her works, saw a revival in the 1970s with the help of a retrospective held by the Whitney Museum of American Art. It brought her the attention of a generation of women during the early years of the feminist era.
Macular degeneration and failing eyesight did not hinder O’Keeffe from continuing to produce works. She kept creating art using watercolour, pencil and clay during the 70s. She continued to paint unassisted despite losing her central vision until 1972. Her later works returned to the simplistic abstract lines and shapes of her earlier charcoal drawings.
O’Keeffe’s Works and Legacy
Petunia No. 2 (1924)
Flowers were a consistent motif in O’Keeffe’s work. The Petunia No. 2 painted in 1924 was one of the artist’s first large-scale renderings. She wanted to emphasise the shape and colour of the flower in this painting. With flowers as one of her preferred subjects, her paintings often receive interpretations that O’Keeffe disagrees with. Such interpretations often came from feminists, believing that O’Keeffe paints flowers to represent the female genitalia. Despite that, for O’Keeffe, there was no symbolism in her flower paintings. She simply wanted to capture a flower’s essence in her paintings.
Cow Skull: Red, White and Blue (1931)
One of the things that captured O’Keeffe’s attention in New Mexico were bones, particularly animal skulls. She rendered the skull’s weathered surface and sharp edges with precision in this painting. Separating the cow skull from the context of the desert, placing it against a backdrop of red, white and blue as though attempting to present the relation between the landscape and identity. At the same time, the painting references life’s transience.
O’Keeffe’s legacy included 70 years of work and contributions to American modernism’s development. She influenced early American modernists as a part of the Stieglitz Circle. She was not only a notable pioneer female artist but a great influence on the artists of the feminist movement, this despite her renunciation of their interpretation of her works. She was a prolific artist who produced about 2000 pieces of art. The deterioration of her health did not mar her will to create. One of her last works was created with the help of assistants. She died at 98 on March 6, 1986, in Santa Fe. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum located in Santa Fe has a research centre that provides fellowships for modern American art scholars. It is also the first museum in the United States dedicated to a female artist.