Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keeffe was born November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her early experiences on the family’s dairy farm contributed to the later maturation of her artistic style and philosophy, particularly her lifelong love of the land. The artist herself recalled later, “Where I come from, the earth means everything….Life depends on it.”  Her mother greatly valued education and organized art lessons for O’Keeffe and her two younger sisters at their home. After her teachers recognized and encouraged her artistic talent, twelve-year-old O’Keeffe decided that she wanted to become an artist.

After high school from 1905-06, O’Keeffe attended the Art Institute in Chicago, which was still very conservative at the time. Instructors taught students to draw with almost scientific precision, and O’Keeffe spent much time copying from nature. The following year she transferred to the slightly more progressive Art Students League in New York, where she studied under William Merritt Chase. Although Chase exposed O’Keeffe to Japanese art during her time there, imitative realism was the prevailing teaching method. Frustrated by the limitations of copying nature, O’Keeffe did not continue to create art after finishing college. She rationalized this decision by explaining that she “began to realize that a lot of people had done this same kind of panting before I came along. It had been done and I didn’t think I could do it any better. It would have been just futile for me, so I stopped painting for quite awhile.”

In 1908, O’Keeffe accepted a job as a commercial artist in Chicago to help her family with growing financial problems. Her work was difficult and unrewarding, prompting her to abandon painting for nearly four years. In 1910, O’Keeffe’s mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so she moved to Virginia (where her family was living at the time) to help care for her. While there, she took a summer course for art teachers at the University of Virginia, and her mentor Alon Bement introduced her to the theories of Arthur Wesley Dow. Unlike realism, which O’Keeffe found stale and overworked, Dow’s theories excited and inspired her—her passion for art was finally rekindled.

Explaining Dow’s influence on her work, O’Keeffe said that he “had one dominating idea: to fill a space in a beautiful way,” which was a revolutionary idea at the time. Dow believed that the goal of art should be to express the artist’s personal ideas and emotions. He argued that art is best expressed through abstract compositions, which highlight the harmonious use of color, line, shape, and notan (a Japanese concept of contrasting light and dark colors). Encouraging students to make beautifully composed art, Dow still instructed students to look at the real world for inspiration but then to simplify and abstract the forms they see. He also incorporated elements of Eastern art and design into his teachings, stating that “one evening with Hokusai gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures.”

O’Keeffe began experimenting with Dow’s ideas while teaching art at a public school in Amarillo, Texas, from 1912-14. In 1915, she began teaching art at Columbia College in South Carolina and also started a series of abstract charcoal drawings that were unlike anything she had made before. Completely avant-garde, O’Keeffe’s drawings synthesized influences from Kandinsky, Matisse, and other contemporary modernists, along with the theories of Dow, to create an expressive personal style uniquely her own.

In 1916, O’Keeffe mailed the drawings to Anita Pollitzer, a former Teachers College classmate, who then showed them to gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Truly impressed, Stieglitz expressed his excitement to Pollitzer: “Finally a woman on paper.” He continued, saying, “You say a woman did these—She’s an unusual woman—She’s broad minded. She’s bigger than most women, but she’s got the sensitive emotions—I’d know she was a woman—Look at that line.” O’Keeffe received Stieglitz’s encouragement during a period of self-doubt, and she later credited him with convincing her to continue making art. She said that his response “makes me want to keep on—and I had almost decided that it was a fool’s game.”

Stieglitz’s approval and support was no small matter. His New York gallery, 291, was the first in the United States to exhibit avant-garde European art, introducing Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, and Brancusi to American audiences. Stieglitz exhibited O’Keeffe’s drawings in 291 in 1916, and the two began writing letters to each other, beginning a thirty-year relationship. O’Keeffe soon moved to New York from Texas, leaving her post as the head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College, and eventually married Stieglitz in 1924. For the next ten years, they lived in the city during winter and spring and then spent each summer and fall at Lake George, New York. During this period, O’Keeffe often incorporated landscapes of Lake George into her work and began painting her iconic images of calla lilies and other flowers. Photographic theory and technique also influenced O’Keeffe’s work at this time and can be seen prominently in her close-up, cropped views of flowers.

At the beginning of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s relationship, he took numerous nude portraits of her, causing her to gain more fame as his model and muse than as an artist in her own right. O’Keeffe struggled against this highly sexualized perception of her and her works for many years. In 1923, she began a series of works with clearly recognizable subject matter to combat some of the sexual themes at critics read into her more abstract work. She explained this shift, stating, “My work this year is very much on the ground—There will be only two abstract things—or three at the most—all the rest is objective—as objective as I can make it…I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn’t like the interpretation of my other things.” Although the nude photographs were a source of frustration for O’Keeffe later, she and Stieglitz had an extremely productive artistic interchange—they often inspired each other’s compositions and subject matter.

Another great influence on O’Keeffe was the photographer Paul Strand, a disciple of Stieglitz. He showed O’Keeffe his photographs of everyday objects like bowls and chairs that he had enlarged and cropped to create abstractions. Soon, O’Keeffe was achieving both critical and some financial success. In 1926, Duncan Phillips purchased three of her paintings—the first of her works to enter a public collection.