|Georgia O'Keeffe, hands 1918|
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
Today we celebrate the birth of one of the most influential and well-known female artists of the 20th century. Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisc., O’Keeffe was the second of seven children born to a pair of dairy farmers. Her maternal grandfather and namesake, George Victor Totto, was a Hungarian count who immigrated to the United States in 1848. Known today for her intense and vibrant paintings, O’Keeffe made the decision to become an artist at the wise age of 10, and, along with her sister, received her first instruction from watercolorist Sara Mann.
When the O’Keeffe family moved to Williamsburg, Va., in 1902, Georgia remained in Wisconsin with her aunt to attend school before making the move to join her family in 1903. After graduating from high school in 1905, O’Keeffe went to study at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago until 1906. From there she enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City, where she happened to study under William Merritt Chase. In 1908 she won a still-life prize named for Chase at the League for one of her oil paintings.
That same year, after attending an exhibition of Auguste Rodin’s watercolors at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, O’Keeffe gave up the idea of being a professional artist, believing that she could never distinguish herself from the painters from whom she had learned. She did not paint again for four years.
In 1912, O’Keeffe attended a class at the University of Virginia Summer School, where she was introduced to the innovative ideas and techniques of Arthur Wesley Dow, who was best known for teaching that instead of copying nature, art should focus on the elements of the composition, such as line, mass and color. These ideas inspired O’Keeffe to pick up her brush once more and she ended up teaching art in public schools in Amarillo, Tex., from 1912 to 1914. She still took classes from Dow, who helped shape her thought-process as she painted. After teaching at Columbia University in South Carolina until 1916, O’Keeffe took the job as head of the art department at still young West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Tex., where she stayed until 1918. During that time she made multiple expeditions into the Palo Duro Canyon, using the rock formations as subjects in many of her works.
It was in 1916 that O’Keeffe’s work made an impact on the New York art community. Anita Pollitzer, a photographer and friend of O’Keeffe’s from Columbia University, mailed a few of O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings to Stieglitz, not only a gallery owner but a photographer (and O’Keeffe’s future husband). Stieglitz told Pollitzer that the drawings were the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while.” In April of that year, he exhibited 10 of her drawings, surprising O’Keeffe. When she confronted him, she agreed to let them remain on display. This catalyst began their partnership. Stieglitz went on to organize nearly all of O’Keeffe’s exhibitions, starting with her first solo show, in 1917, at 291, which included her paintings and watercolors from her time in Texas.
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe kept in constant contact over the years, and in 1918, O’Keeffe agreed to move to New York to devote her time to her art. The two began to fall in love and moved in together, even though Stieglitz was already married and 23 years older. In 1924, his divorce was approved and he married O’Keeffe within four months. It was with Stieglitz’s aid that O’Keeffe’s work gained further fame and commanded higher and higher prices.
O’Keeffe’s notable New Mexico phase did not begin until the late 1920s. Before then she had been working in the New York area, but she had felt the increasing need for a new source of inspiration, and traveled to Santa Fe. She took multiple trips into the desert, painting her iconic scenes with vivid colors. In late 1932, she suffered a nervous breakdown partly because she was falling behind schedule on a mural project. O’Keeffe did not paint again until 1934, after recuperating in Bermuda. She returned to New Mexico, leaving Stieglitz to work (he also had an affair with the photographer Dorothy Norman) in New York.
O’Keeffe continued to work exclusively from New Mexico, buying homes there, including an abandoned hacienda in Abiquiu, until 1946, when Stieglitz died. She spent three years settling his affairs in New York before moving permanently to New Mexico. She worked primarily from her Abiquiu house, making its architectural elements subjects of her work.
In 1962, O’Keeffe became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and four years later she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She continued to have exhibitions, and her work remained a prominent force in the public eye. In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens, and in 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
O’Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s, and her eyesight began to deteriorate. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, and in 1986, on March 6, she died at the age of 98. O’Keeffe was cremated in accordance with her will, and her ashes were scattered on the winds atop Pedernal Mountain, over what she called her “beloved faraway.”
Red Barn, Lake George, New York, 1921
O'Keeffe's legacy lives on today, her work being her most influential impact on the arts. The museum in Santa Fe devoted to her paintings, drawings and pottery, coincidentally designed by the same architects as the Georgia Museum of Art's renovation and expansion project, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. In the sciences, a fossilized species of archosaur (an ancient relative of today's crocodiles) was named after her as Effigia okeeffeae (meaning "O'Keeffe's ghost"). Collections of her paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art and in the Georgia Museum of Art. If you'd like to have a look at some of O'Keeffe's influential work, especially on her birthday, we would love to see you in the museum!