Georgia O”Keeffe (Sun Prairie, November 15, 1887 – Santa Fe, March 6, 1986) was an American artist, known especially for her paintings of flowers, New York skyscrapers and New Mexico landscapes. O”Keeffe has been recognized as the “mother of American modernism”.
Georgia O”Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887 in Sun Prairie, in a farmhouse located at 2405 Hwy T in the town of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. O” Keeffe was the second of seven children. Her parents, Francis Calyxtus O”Keeffe and Ida Totto were dairy farmers. Her father was Irish. Her maternal grandfather George Victor Totto, in whose memory she was named Georgia, was a Hungarian count who went to the United States in 1848.
She attended Municipal School in Sun Prairie. By the age of ten she had decided to become an artist, and she and her sister trained with local watercolorist Sara Mann. O”Keeffe attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin, between 1901 and 1902. In late 1902 the O”Keeffe”s moved from Wisconsin to Peacock Hill in Williamsburg, Virginia. O”Keeffe stayed one more year in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended Madison High School, then joined her family. He completed high school as a student at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia (now Chatham Hall) and graduated in 1905. She belonged to the Kappa Delta women”s fraternity.
In 1905 O”Keeffe began her formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the Art Students League in New York, but felt limited by the training she received, which was geared to reconstructing or copying what was in nature. In 1908, unable to finance her higher education, she worked for two years as a commercial illustrator and then spent seven years between 1911 and 1918 teaching in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina. During the summers of 1912 to 1914 she studied art and became acquainted with the principles and philosophies of Arthur Wesley Dow, who supported that works of art should be created based on style, design and personal interpretation of subjects rather than attempting to copy or depict. This brought about a great change in the way he approached art, as seen in the early stages of the watercolors produced at the University of Virginia and most dramatically in the charcoal drawings he produced in 1915 and with which he was reaching full abstraction. Alfred Stieglitz, art dealer and photographer, organized an exhibition of her work in 1916. For the next two years, she was a teacher and continued her studies at Teacher”s College, Columbia University. During that time she visited her brother Alexis at a military camp in Texas before embarking for Europe during World War I. There she painted, “The Flag. There she painted, “The Flag”, where she expressed her anxiety and depression about the war.
She moved to New York in 1918 at Stieglitz”s request and began working professionally as an artist. They developed a professional but also personal relationship, marrying in 1924. O”Keeffe created many forms of abstract art, including close-ups of flowers, such as the Red Canna paintings, which many believed represented women”s genitalia, although she denied that intention. Her relationship to the depiction of women”s sexuality was also fueled by sensually explicit photographs that Stieglitz had taken and exhibited of O”Keeffe.
The couple lived together in New York until 1929, when O”Keeffe began spending part of the year in the Southwest. These locales were inspiration for her paintings of New Mexico landscapes and images of animal skulls, such as “Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue” and “The Head of the Hollyhock White Spur and Small Hills.” After Stieglitz”s death he moved permanently to New Mexico, first in Abiquiú and his last years already in Santa Fe.
In 2014, the 1932 work “Jimson Weed” sold for $44.4 million, more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist. The Georgia O”Keeffe Museum was founded in 1997 in Santa Fe.
Education and early career
O”Keeffe studied and ranked at the top of her class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906, studying with John Vanderpoel. Due to typhoid fever, she had to leave her education for a year. In 1907, she attended the Art Students League of New York, where she studied with William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox and F. Luis Mora. In 1908, she won the William Merritt Chase League”s Still-life prize for her oil painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot. His prize was a scholarship to attend the League”s outdoor summer school at Lake George, New York. While in the city, O”Keeffe visited galleries, such as 291, co-managed by her future husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The gallery promoted the work of avant-garde artists and photographers from the United States and Europe.
In 1908, O”Keeffe discovered that she would not be able to finance her studies. Her father had declared bankruptcy and her mother was seriously ill with tuberculosis.She was also not interested in creating a career as a painter based on the mimetic tradition that had formed the basis of her artistic training.She took a job in Chicago as a commercial artist and worked there until 1910, when she returned to Virginia to recover from a case of the measles and then moved with her family to Charlottesville.She did not paint for four years, and said that the smell of turpentine made her sick.She began teaching art in 1911. One of her positions was at her previous school, Chatham Episcopal High School in Virginia.
She took a summer art class in 1912 at the University of Virginia from Alon Bement, who was a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College. Bement, she learned of innovative ideas from Arthur Wesley Dow, a colleague of her instructor. Dow”s approach was influenced by Japanese art principles of design and composition. She began experimenting with abstract compositions and developed a personal style that moved away from realism. She took classes at the University of Virginia for two more summers. She also took a class in the spring of 1914 at Columbia University”s Teacher”s College with Dow, who further influenced her thinking about the process of making art. Her studies at the University of Virginia, based on Dow”s principles, were instrumental in O”Keeffe”s development as an artist. Through her exploration and growth as an artist, she helped establish the American Modernism movement. In November 2016, the Georgia O”Keeffe Museum recognized the importance of her time in Charlottesville by dedicating an exhibition, using watercolors she had created over three summers. She received her degree from O”Keeffe at the University of Virginia, 1912-1914.
From 1912 to 1914, she taught art in public schools in Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. During the summers, she was Bement”s teaching assistant.
He taught at Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina in late 1915, where he completed a series of highly innovative charcoal abstractions based on his personal sensations. The Georgia O”Keeffe Museum says he was one of the first American artists to practice pure abstraction. O”Keeffe mailed the drawings to a friend and former classmate at Teachers College, Anita Pollitzer, who brought them to Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 gallery in early 1916. Stieglitz found them to be the “purest, finest, most sincere things that had come into 291 in a long time,” and said he would like to show them. In early 1916, O”Keeffe was in New York at Teachers College, Columbia University. In April of that year, Stieglitz exhibited ten of her drawings in 291.
After additional work at Columbia in early 1916 and summer classes for Bement, she was head of the art department beginning in the fall of 1916 at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon. She began a series of watercolors based on landscape and broad vistas during her walks, including vibrant paintings she did of Palo Duro Canyon. O”Keeffe, who enjoyed sunrises and sunsets, developed a fondness for intense, nocturnal colors. From a practice that began in South Carolina, O”Keeffe painted to express her most private feelings and sensations. Instead of drawing a design before painting, she freely created designs. O”Keeffe continued to experiment until she believed she captured the truth of her sensations in watercolor. She “captured a monumental landscape in this simple configuration, fusing blue and green pigments in almost indistinguishable tonal gradations that simulate the pulsing effect of light on the Texas Panhandle horizon,” according to author Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall.
Stieglitz, nearly a quarter of a century older than O”Keeffe, provided the financial support and secured a residence and a place for her to paint in New York in 1918. They developed a close personal relationship and he promoted her work. She became acquainted with many of the 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. Also around this time, O”Keeffe became ill during the flu pandemic of 1918, as did many others.
O”Keeffe began creating simplified images of natural things, such as leaves, flowers, and rocks. Inspired by Precisionism, Green Apple, completed in 1922, represents her notion of simple, meaningful life. O”Keeffe said that year, “it is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we see the true meaning of things.” Blue and Green Music expresses O”Keeffe”s feelings about music through visual art, using bold, subtle colors.
O”Keeffe, famous for her depiction of flowers, made some 200 paintings of flowers, which in the mid-1920s were large-scale representations of flowers, as if viewed through a magnifying lens, such as the Oriental Poppies and several paintings of Red Canna. She painted her first large-scale flower painting, Petunia, No. 2, in 1924 which was exhibited in 1925. Making the magnified depictions of objects included a sense of awe and emotional intensity. On November 20, 2014, O”Keeffe”s Jimson Weed (1932) sold for $44,405,000, more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist.
Works such as Black Iris III (1926) evoke a veiled representation of female genitalia, while also accurately depicting the center of an iris. O”Keeffe consistently denied the validity of Freudian interpretations of her art.
After moving into a 30th-floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel in 1925, O”Keeffe began a series of paintings of the city”s skyscrapers and skyline, one of her most notable works, which demonstrates her ability to depict buildings in the Precisionist style, is Radiator Building-Night, New York. One of her most notable works, which demonstrates her skill at depicting buildings in the Precisionist style, is Radiator Building-Night, New York. Other examples include New York Street with the Moon (1925), the Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y. (1926), and City Night (1926). She did a cityscape, East River from the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel in 1928, a sad painting of her view of the East River and smoke-emitting factories in Queens. The following year she did her final work of the New York skyline and skyscraper paintings, later traveling to New Mexico, which became a source of inspiration for her work.
In 1924, Stieglitz organized a simultaneous exhibition of O”Keeffe”s artwork and photographs at Anderson Galleries and organized other major exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum held a retrospective of her work in 1927. In 1928, she announced to the press that six of her Calla paintings were sold to an anonymous buyer in France for $25,000, but there is no evidence that this transaction took place in the way Stieglitz reported. However, due to the press, O”Keeffe”s paintings were sold at a higher price from that point on. In the late 1920s she was noted for her work as an American artist.
O”Keeffe traveled to New Mexico in 1929 with her friend Rebecca Strand and stayed in Taos at the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who provided the women with studios. O”Keeffe went on many trips, exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region that summer and later visited the nearby ranch of DH Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, where she completed her famous oil painting, Lorenzo”s Tree, now owned by the Wathworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. O”Keeffe visited and painted the historic Mission Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Ranchos de Taos. He made several paintings of the church, as did many artists, and his painting of a fragment silhouetted against the sky captured it from a unique perspective.
New Mexico and New York
O”Keeffe spent part of nearly every year working in New Mexico. She collected rocks and bones from the desert floor and made them, as well as the architectural and landscape forms characteristic of the subjects in her work. Known as a loner, O”Keeffe explored the land she loved often in her Ford Model A, which she bought and learned to drive in 1929. She often spoke of her fondness for Ghost Ranch and northern New Mexico, as in 1943, when she explained, “It is a beautiful, untouched, lonely place, such a fine part of what I call the ”Far Country.” It”s a place I”ve painted before … and now I must do it again.”
Due to exhaustion and ill health, she did not work from late 1932 until about the mid-1930s. She was a popular artist and received several commissions and her works were exhibited in New York and elsewhere. In 1936, she completed what would become one of her best known paintings, Summer Days, in 1936. It depicted a desert scene with a deer skull with vibrant wildflowers. Like the “Ram Head with Hollyhock,” it depicted the skull floating above the horizon.
In 1938, the advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son approached O”Keeffe to create two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Food Company) to use in their advertising. Other artists who produced paintings of Hawaii for Hawaiian Pineapple Company advertising included Lloyd Sexton, Jr, Millard Sheets, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Isamu Noguchi, and Miguel Covarrubias. The offer came at a critical time in O”Keeffe”s life: she was 51, and her career seemed stagnant (critics were calling her New Mexico center as limited and calling her desert images “sort of mass-produced”). He arrived in Honolulu on February 8, 1939 aboard the SS Lurline and spent nine weeks on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the island of Hawaii. By far the most productive and most vivid period was on Maui, where he was given complete freedom to explore and paint. He painted flowers, landscapes and traditional Hawaiian hooks. Back in New York, O”Keeffe completed a series of 20 sensuous, green paintings. However, she did not paint the requested pineapple until the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sent a plant to her New York studio.
During the 1940s O”Keeffe had two solo retrospectives, the first at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943). Her second was in 1946, when she was the first woman artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. The Whitney Museum of American Art began an effort to create the first catalog of her work in the mid-1940s.
In the 1940s, O”Keeffe did an extensive series of paintings of what is called the “Black Place,” about 150 miles west of her Ghost Ranch home. O”Keeffe said the Black Place resembled “an elephant mile with gray hills and white sand at their feet.” She did paintings of the “White Place,” a white rock formation located near her home in Abiquiú.
In 1946 she began her work on the architectural forms of her Abiquiú home. Another distinctive painting was “Stairway to the Moon”, 1958. O”Keeffe produced a series of celestial view art, such as the sky above the clouds in the mid-1960s which were inspired by her views of windows from an airplane window.
The Worcester Art Museum held a retrospective of her work in 1960 and ten years later, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the Georgia O”Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition.
In 1972, O”Keeffe lost much of her sight due to macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped painting in oils unaided in 1972. In the 1970s, she produced a series of works in watercolor. Her autobiography, Georgia O”Keeffe, published in 1976 was a best seller.
Judy Chicago gave O”Keeffe a prominent place in The Dinner Party (1979) in recognition of what many prominent feminist artists considered the groundbreaking introduction of sensual, feminist imagery into her artwork. Although feminists celebrated O”Keeffe as the creator of “feminist iconography,” O”Keeffe refused to join the feminist art movement or cooperate with any project. More particularly, she did not like to be called a “woman artist”; she wanted to be considered an “artist” only.
He continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984.
Awards and honors
O”Keeffe was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1966 was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among her awards and honors, O”Keeffe received the M. Carey Thomas Award at Bryn Mawr College in 1971 and two years later received an honorary degree from Harvard University.
In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented O”Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed on American civilians. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women”s Hall of Fame.
In June 1918, O”Keeffe accepted Stieglitz”s invitation to move to New York and accept his financial support. Stieglitz, who was married, moved in with her in July.
In February 1921, Stieglitz”s photographs of O”Keeffe were included in a retrospective exhibition at the Anderson Galleries. Stieglitz began photographing O”Keeffe when he visited her in New York to see her 1917 exhibition, and continued to take photographs, in many of which she was nude. She created a public sensation. By the time he retired from photography in 1937, he had taken more than 350 portraits of her. In 1978 he wrote of how distant he felt from them, “When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me-some of them more than sixty years ago-I wonder who that person is, it is as if in my one lifetime I have lived many lifetimes.”
In 1924, Stieglitz divorced his wife Emmeline, and married O”Keeffe. To spend the rest of their lives together, their relationship was “a collusion … a system of agreements and concessions, tacitly agreed upon and carried out, for the most part, without the exchange of a word.” Preferring to avoid confrontation in most cases, O”Keeffe was the primary agent of collusion in their relationship,” according to biographer Benita Eisler.
They lived primarily in New York City, but spent their summers at their family home, Oaklawn, on Lake George in upstate New York.
In 1928, Stieglitz began an adulterous affair with Dorothy Norman and lost a project to create a mural for Radio City Music Hall and was hospitalized for depression. She was later hospitalized for depression. O”Keeffe began spending summers painting in New Mexico in 1929. She traveled by train with her friend Rebecca Strand to Taos, where Mabel Dodge Luhan moved them into her home and provided studios.
In 1933, O”Keeffe was hospitalized for two months after suffering a nervous breakdown, largely because she was devastated by Stieglitz”s continued infidelity with Dorothy Norman. She did not return to painting until January 1934. In early 1933 and 1934, O”Keeffe recuperated in Bermuda and returned to New Mexico in mid-1934. In August of that year, she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, for the first time and immediately decided to live there; in 1940, she moved into a house on the ranch property. The ranch”s multicolored cliffs inspired some of his most famous landscapes. In 1977, O”Keeffe wrote: “The cliffs there look almost painted for you, you would think, until I tried to paint them”. Among the guests who visited her at the ranch over the years were Charles and Anne Lindbergh, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, poet Allen Ginsberg and photographer Ansel Adams. She traveled and camped at Black Place often with her friend Maria Chabot and later with Eliot Porter.
In 1945, O”Keeffe bought a second home, an abandoned hacienda in Abiquiú, which she renovated as a house and studio. Shortly after O”Keeffe arrived for the summer in New Mexico in 1946, Stieglitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis. She flew immediately to New York to be with him. She died on July 13, 1946. She buried his ashes in Lake George. She spent the next three years primarily in New York establishing her estate and moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949, spending time at Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiú house that made her studio.
Todd Webb, a photographer she met in the 1940s, moved to New Mexico in 1961. He often made photographs of her, as did numerous other leading American photographers, who consistently portrayed O”Keeffe as a “loner.” While O”Keeffe was known for having a “prickly personality,” Webb”s photographs portray her with a kind of “stillness and quietness” that suggests a relaxed friendliness and reveals new contours of O”Keeffe”s character.
O”Keeffe enjoyed traveling to Europe and then around the world, beginning in the 1950s. Several times she took canoeing trips down the Colorado River, including a trip down Glen Canyon, Utah, in 1961 with Webb and photographer Eliot Porter.
In 1973, she hired Juan Hamilton, a 27-year-old potter, as a shift assistant and later as a caretaker. Hamilton taught O”Keeffe how to work with clay and helped her write her autobiography. He worked for her for 13 years. O”Keeffe became increasingly frail in the late 1970s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered, as she wished, on the land around Ghost Ranch.
After O”Keeffe”s death, her family contested her will because codicils made to her in the 1980s had left most of her $76 million estate to Hamilton. The case was finally settled out of court in July 1987. The case became famous as a precedent in estate planning.
O”Keeffe was a legend beginning in the 1920s, known as much for her independent spirit and female modeling as for her dramatic and innovative artwork. Nancy and Jules Heller said, “What was most remarkable about O”Keefe was the boldness and uniqueness of her early work.” At that time, even in Europe, there were few arts that explored abstraction. Although her works may show elements of different modernist movements, such as surrealism and Precisionism, her work is uniquely her own style. She received unprecedented acceptance as a female artist in the fine art world due to her powerful graphic imagery and within a decade of moving to New York City, she was the highest paid American female artist. O”Keeffe was also known for her relationship with Stieglitz, which she referred to extensively in her autobiography.
A substantial portion of her estate was transferred to the Georgia O”Keeffe Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Georgia O”Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe in 1997. The estate included much of her work, photographs, archival materials, and her home, library, and Abiquiú property. Georgia O”Keeffe”s home and studio in Abiquiú was designated a National Historic Site in 1998 and is now owned by the Georgia O”Keeffe Museum.
In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring O”Keeffe. In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show, the USPS issued a stamp featuring O”Keeffe”s Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico Out Back by Marie II, 1930 as part of its Modern Art in America series.
A fossilized species of archosaur was named Effigia okeeffeae (“O”Keeffe”s Ghost”) in January 2006, “in honor of Georgia O”Keeffe for her numerous paintings of the lands at Ghost Ranch and her interest in Coelophysis when it was discovered.”
In 1991, PBS aired the American Playhouse production A Marriage: O”Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, starring Jane Alexander as O”Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Stieglitz.
Lifetime Television produced a Georgia O”Keeffe biopic starring Joan Allen as O”Keeffe, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Simmons as Jean Toomer, Ed Begley Jr. as Stieglitz”s brother, Lee and Tyne Daly as Mabel Dodge Luhan. It was released on September 19, 2009.
The artist is also mentioned in the AMC series Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, and her museum even appears in one of the episodes of the latter.