One of the most sophisticated artists of the 20th century, Georgia O'Keeffe grew up in small-town Wisconsin and was named after her maternal grandfather, George Victor Totto, a Hungarian count. By the age of 10 she had decided to become an artist, but her traditional art education discouraged her and at 21 she abandoned the idea, assuming she would never distinguish herself in the strict realist tradition of her teachers.
She took up painting again in 1912 after four years as a commercial artist. Now aged 25, she attended a summer school at the University of Virginia. Her tutor introduced her to the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was influenced by studies of Japanese art, emphasising composition and design like the Post-Impressionists.
In the early 1910s, O’Keeffe became exposed to the works of European modernists like Picasso and Braque at 291, the New York gallery owned by Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer. In late 1915 she posted a series of charcoal drawings to her friend Anita Pollitzer, who took them to Stieglitz. He considered them the ‘purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while’. When O’Keeffe arrived at the gallery in April 1916 she discovered her work was already on view, but allowed the drawings to remain. Her first solo show took place at the gallery in April 1917.
They corresponded frequently, and on 10 June 1918 she moved to New York City. They began living together almost straight away, despite Stieglitz being 23 years her senior and already married. Through him she met many significant American modernists including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Edward Steichen, and Rebecca Salsbury James, who was married to photographer Paul Strand and would later accompany O’Keeffe on her momentous first trip to New Mexico in 1929 (see 8, below).
...most of them nude studies. As well as being works of personal devotion his images were a conscious attempt to market O’Keeffe, linking her sexuality and her art. She became seen as a liberated, modern woman — and a media personality.
From 1918 to 1934, the couple would spent part of each summer and autumn at Stieglitz’s family 36-acre estate along Lake George in upstate New York. Although O'Keeffe is often associated with the barren landscape of her beloved Southwest, she was extremely productive during her time at Lake George, producing about 200 paintings over this period. In addition to the famous flowers, leaves and landscapes, she also produced strikingly modern and emotionally invested architectural paintings of the farm buildings on the Stieglitz property.
The area around Lake George was an important landscape for O’Keeffe, its vast panorama and openness allowing her the space to experiment with colour and form, and between abstraction and representation. She often referred to Lake George as ‘perfect’.
O’Keeffe came to view autumn as her best time for painting. The Red Maple at Lake George, painted in 1926, demonstrates her ability to balance seemingly opposite forces, separating the tree from its natural environment and concentrating on form and colour.
For O’Keeffe, the flower was a tool through which she could explore varying languages of abstraction and representation, responding to nature as opposed to her inner self. Unapologetically daring, Inside Red Canna (1919) is arguably her earliest depiction of a magnified flower in oil.
Sensual, sexual, powerful and delicate, the painting was included in O’Keeffe’s watershed 1923 exhibition at Anderson Galleries, a retrospective of her work, most of which had never been seen before, organised by Stieglitz.
In the summer of 1924 O’Keeffe began painting beds of blue and purple petunias at the Stieglitz’s country house, the flowers filling the canvas entirely. It led to her first large-scale flower painting, Petunia, No. 2 (1925).
She also painted the New York skyline in works such as New York—Night (1926) and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York (1927), often from their marital home — the 13th floor of the Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, where the couple lived for 12 years.
In part due to her Stieglitz-created public image, Freudian interpretations had begun to attach themselves to O’Keeffe’s work by the mid-1920s. As a consequence, her art became more representational.
O’Keeffe began visiting New Mexico in 1929, and visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, for the first time in August 1934. She had only recently recuperated from a nervous breakdown and was so taken with the landscape that she decided to live there, moving into a house on the property permanently in 1940.
The view of the wide open desert backed by the Cerro Pedernal mountain, as in Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds (1936), became her favourite subject. ‘It's my private mountain,’ she explained. ‘It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.’
Over the years, she received many distinguished visitors at Ghost Ranch, including Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Ansel Adams.
O’Keeffe’s reputation continued to grow, and she painted arrangements of rocks and bones superimposed on a desert background, as in Summer Days (1936), now in the Whitney Museum, New York, and other found objects, such as horns and feathers.
Across her long career, O’Keeffe only made a handful of representational portraits. ‘I’ve had to pose for too many people myself,’ she explained in the early 1960s. Her 1943 portrait of Beauford Delaney (below), a prominent artist within the Harlem Renaissance and a frequent visitor to An American Place, is one of them. O’Keeffe approached portraits in the same way she tackled studies of rocks or still lifes of bones.
In 1940 she was given a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1946, she became the first female artist to be afforded a retrospective at MoMA. In 1970 O’Keeffe was feted in a further retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, which travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Despite beginning to suffer from macular degeneration in 1972, which left her with only peripheral vision, O'Keeffe continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984. She died on 6 March 1986 and her ashes were scattered at the top of Pedernal.