Tag Archives: Empowered Women of the Southwest

Young Mabel

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Mabel Dodge Luhan

Some people find empowerment through their passion. Other people find empowerment through what they do for mankind. Still others find empowerment through their search of self and belonging. Such is the case for Mabel Dodge Luhan, self-proclaimed Muse of the Arts.

Mabel at 18 years old
Mabel at 18
(Buffaloah.com)

As an only child, Mabel Dodge Luhan grew up with wealth and privilege; two things many people strive their whole lives to achieve. But what she never had, until later in her adulthood, were things that many people take for granted; love, attention, and feeling of belonging.

Mabel’s father, Charles Ganson, inherited his wealth from his powerful banking family. Charles went to school and trained to be a lawyer, but his nervous disposition and volatile temper impeded his success. During Mabel’s growing up years, Charles spent time with his dogs, or in his study not doing much of anything. According to an article at Enclyclopedia.com, Mabel states that, to her father she “…was something that made noise sometimes in the house, and had to be told to get out of the way.”

Sara, Mabel’s mother, often the victim of Charles’ temper, grew indifferent to him and had little interest in her only child. While Sara entertained herself with the society of New York, Mabel spent most of her time in the care of a nanny, and then later school mistresses at Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School for Girls, and Miss Graham’s School in New York City. At 16, Mabel toured Europe and then attended the affluent Chevy Chase Finishing School in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area.

Educated in the arts of an upper crust domestic wife, Mabel, at 21 years old, married Karl Evans, another silver spoon youth. Her father did not approve of the match, and her mother remained indifferent.

The young couple soon had a child, a boy they named John. Perhaps because of her own upbringing, Mabel struggled with the confines of marriage and child rearing. After only two years of matrimony, Karl died in a hunting accident, adding to Mabel’s emotion duress. A single mother, now facing life alone, Mabel suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she took her young son and moved to Europe. In Paris, she met Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. He pressed his suit, and eager for a father for John, and security for herself, Mabel agreed to marry Dodge in 1904.

Mabel and her son John
Mabel and her son John
(mabeldodgeluhan.com)

The couple moved to Florence, Italy where they settled in a lovely villa they called Villa Curonia, a famous estate originally built for the powerful Italian Medici family. But, happiness still eluded Mabel. Trapped in a loveless marriage, and unable to escape the depression that would reoccur throughout her lifetime, Mabel needed a diversion. She embarked on her quest to become a muse of the arts, or as she states in her autobiography, Intimate Memories, “a mythological figure…in my own lifetime.”

For eight years, often dressed in Renaissance costume, Mabel entertained the famous and noteworthy of International society, including novelists, artists, photographers and art critics. Her Italian “salon” became a place of philosophical, political, and artistic enlightenment.

Still discontented with married life, Mabel left Dodge and moved back to New York where she established another salon for the artistic intelligentsia. From 1913 to 1916, she entertained those interested in unconventional attitudes of the era. Freudism, free-love, anarchy, and modern art were popular avant-guard topics discussed at Mabel’s house. Inspired by the conversation, Mabel embarked on a writing career and wrote for literary and art magazines, including Alfred Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work. Stieglitz and his mistress at the time, Georgia O’Keeffe, frequented Mabel’s home along with mutual friends Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Between 1914 and 1916, she met and married artist Maurice Stern. Even though Mabel had created a world of her own, she still could not find happiness. In 1917 she and Stern traveled to New Mexico, a provincial and wild place she’d learned about from her friends the Steins. She arrived in Santa Fe, and was entertained by other wealthy, female east-coast transplants like Alice Corbin and Natalie Curtis Burlin, who had already established themselves in the town.

Eager to put her mark on a new and nearly undiscovered place, Mabel found Santa Fe too confining. In her book Ladies of the Canyons, Lesley Poling-Kempes asserts that “for Mabel, the real problem with Santa Fe was its population, however small, of erudite, creative, and audacious New Women who were already making their mark on the place. Mabel needed her own space to make her mark . . .”

Mabel moved to the nearby village of Taos to start her own literary society. There she met and befriended Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian. Mabel asserts that before arriving in Taos, she had a dream where she saw her husband Maurice’s face turn into that of an Indian. Mabel believed Tony to be that man. Tony encouraged Mabel to buy property, a 12-acre parcel of land, complete with a tiny dwelling. Tony helped the Stern’s remodel and rebuild the four-room adobe house. He set up a teepee on the Stern’s front lawn, and proceeded to woo Mabel. It worked. She sent Maurice packing and married Luhan in 1923.

Mabel and Tony
Mabel and Tony
(KUNM)

The colorful landscape and rich culture of Taos gave Mabel the life and love she craved. Finally, happy and at peace, Mabel, with her fourth and final husband, Tony Luhan, entertained some of the most famous literary and artistic minds of their time, including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence. Georgia O’Keeffe, while visiting Mabel, decided that she, too, could find infinite inspiration from the enchanted landscape of New Mexico, and also settled there.

The Luhans eventually expanded their home to 17 rooms, and continued to provide literary and artistic inspiration for others, as well as forging Mabel’s own talents as a writer.

Never known for her warmth or sunny personality, Mabel, regardless, indeed made her mark on New Mexico and American history. She promoted Native American culture and art, as well as other important artists, writers, and abstract thinkers of her time. She found empowerment through her continual quest to get her life just right, and become the person she aspired to be.

Her vision, her promotion of others and herself, helped make Mabel Dodge Luhan an institution in Southwestern history.

 

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe in headscarf
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
(New York Times)

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.

nude of Georgia O'Keeffe
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz (New York Times)

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.

Jimson Weed - O'Keeffe
Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keeffe
(Wikipedia)

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  that sold in 2014 for over $44,000.

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.”

Stieglitz & O’Keeffe
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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.