Georgia O’Keeffe—a name synonymous with the beauty and mystique of the Southwest.
O’Keeffe’s depiction of multicolored desert landscapes, sensuous enlarged flowers and animal skulls, white-washed from the harshness of the New Mexico sun, portray her passion for and enchantment of the American Southwest. Throughout her life in New Mexico, O’Keefe found solace, inspiration, and the empowerment to become the “mother of American modernism.”
Born in 1887 to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Georgia showed a passion for art at a young age. Her parents supported her interest by enrolling her in art lessons with a local watercolorist. At 18 years old, Georgia studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a bout of illness, she returned to school at the Art Students League in New York City. There, she produced a still-life painting entitled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, and with the painting, won a scholarship to attend the League’s satellite school in Lake George, New York.
In 1908, her art and her passion took a turn. Unable to finance her studies due to her family’s bankruptcy, Georgia took a 4-year hiatus from her craft. She began teaching in 1911. In 1912 she took an art class that focused on the work of Arthur Wesley Dow, and started to experiment with abstract principals. This would prove pivotal in her future career. In 1915, while teaching at Columbia College, she created a series of charcoal drawings. The drawings, depicting shapes she found in nature fused with her own subconscious feelings, showed O’Keefe’s unique perspective of integrating art with emotion.
That same year, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and owner of 291, an esteemed art gallery in New York, received O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings from one of her colleagues at Columbia College. Stieglitz exhibited 10 of the drawings at his gallery in 1916 without the artist’s permission. When O’Keeffe heard this, she wrote to him and asked that he take them down. Stieglitz refused, insisting that her art and her unique vision needed to been seen and shared with the world.
Unable to forget the work (and the woman) that moved him in such a profound way, Stieglitz arranged for O’Keeffe to come to New York to paint. A professional, and then later, a personal relationship developed. Already married to Emmeline Obermeyer, Stieglitz fell hard for O’Keefe, 23-years his junior—the muse he’d always longed for. While his wife was away, Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe at his family’s New York apartment. Emmeline feared an affair between the two, and demanded Stieglitz terminate his relationship with O’Keeffe. In turn, Stieglitz secured an apartment and he and O’Keefe moved in together. It took 7 years for Stieglitz to obtain a divorce, but finally, he and O’Keefe married in 1924.
In New York, Georgia became influenced by the movement of Precisionism and began to create the floral paintings that catapulted her to fame. During her lifetime, O’Keeffe made over 200 large scale depictions of flowers such as Oriental Poppies and later, her famed Jimson Weed.
In 1925, O’Keeffe buried herself in this new found precisionist style and began painting a series depicting the New York skyline and the skyscrapers that formed the urban city’s landscape.
Due for a respite from the bustling city, in 1926, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with a friend. They stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan, another east-coast transplant, at her home in Taos. There, O’Keeffe became enchanted with the colors and landscapes of the New Mexico desert. By 1929, she would spend part of every year in Taos and Abiquiú, much to Stieglitz’s disappointment. The relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe was both passionate and tumultuous. O’Keeffe wanted to spend more time in New Mexico while her husband needed to stay in New York to manage his galleries. Another affair occurred. This time between Stieglitz and a young protégé, the photographer Dorothy Norman.
O’Keeffe found in New Mexico solace and inspiration. In 1940, she purchased a house at Ghost Ranch, in the northern part of the state, and five years later purchased a second home in Abiquiú. This home served as much of her subject matter through the 1950’s. In New Mexico, O’Keefe was prolific, creating series of paintings inspired from rock formations in the area surrounding Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu which she called “Black Place” and “White Place.”
In 1946, at the age of 82, Alfred Stieglitz died with O’Keeffe by his side. Three years after that, O’Keeffe made New Mexico her permanent home. In 1949, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and letters, and began traveling the world, seeking further inspiration. She continued to expand her abstractionist style. Inspired by her sky side view in airplanes, she created a cloudscape series, including Sky Above Clouds IV.
In the early 1970’s, O’Keefe began to lose her eyesight from macular degeneration, but her passion for her art and her artistic vision never wavered. She continued to produce art with the help of assistants, and also wrote her autobiography, Georgia O’Keeffe, which became a best-seller.
O’Keeffe received many awards throughout her lifetime for her dedication and contribution to the world of abstract art. In 1977 she received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford, and the National Medal of Arts in 1985.
In the Spring of 1986, O’Keeffe died at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eleven years later, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was built in her honor. There, her memory lives on with 140 oil paintings, nearly 700 drawings and hundreds of additional works dating from 1901 to 1984.
Although O’Keeffe and her work broke ground for female artists around the world, she never identified herself as a “woman artist” or as a feminist. She wanted to be known only as “an artist”, an individual drawn to her craft by something within her that could not be held back or held down. She lived her life just as she wanted, with a unique passion, vision and boldness. Her work, like the woman herself, is empowered, unmistakable, and utterly unforgettable.
To learn more about the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, click here.