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GEORGIA O'KEEFFE

(1887-1986)

AMERICAN MODERNIST

by Danielle Peltakian

Goergia Totto O'keeffe was an American Modernist. Her abstract imagery was innovative. She took painting to a whole new level. She revolutionized flower painting by making large-format paintings of enlarged blossoms. It was as if seeing a flower through a magnifying lens.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

On November 15,1887, Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, WI to Ida Totto and Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe. A daughter of a well-to-do midwestern farmer, Georgia O’Keeffe received her first art instruction at a convent boarding school at the age of 14. Her parents were the first to recognize her talent, and they paid an extra $20 in tuition so that she could receive proper instruction.

The following year, she was enrolled in the local high school. At this young age, she is said to have first realized her own talent for painting objects from nature. She spent her last years of high school at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia, where she acquired some notoriety among pupils for her skill as an artist. Her art teacher Elizabeth May Willis and mother Ida O’Keeffe, who also encouraged her to become a professional artist, proved to be her most prominent supporters.

Upon her graduation in 1905, she enrolled at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. In her first year, O’Keeffe received top rankings among her classmates and quickly excelled to an intermediary level. When the school year let out, she returned to her parents’ home for the summer. Once in Virginia, she contracted a near deadly case of Typhoid fever that left her too weak to return to Chicago for the next school year.

After fully regaining her strength in 1907, she left for the Art Student’s League in Manhattan, where she took portrait and still life classes with painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). Though a top student in her class, O’Keeffe did not return the following year. Presumably, it was her family’s recent financial crisis that stopped her from returning.

In order to support herself, O’Keeffe took up teaching positions at several schools across the South, while periodically taking courses to complete her own art training. In 1914, she returned to school full-time at Teachers College in Columbia University, where she studied under renowned artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922). Upon the completion of the school year, she returned to a teaching position at Columbia College in South Carolina, where she also continued to produce her own work.

In 1916, she sent a series of abstract charcoal drawings to her friend Anita Pollitzer in New York, who then sent them to the prominent photographer Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe had long since known Stieglitz from her years as a student in New York. She and several of her classmates would frequent his gallery, the 291, to view the latest trends in European modern art. Impressed by her drawings, Steiglitz showed them without the artist’s permission; thus, marking the event of O’Keeffe’s first solo-exhibition.

Following the success of the show, Stieglitz invited O’Keeffe, who was then living in Texas, to move to New York and work full-time as a professional artist. She accepted, and the relationship between her and the married Stieglitz soon budded into a romance. They moved into a studio together, and when his divorce was eventually finalized in 1924, the two married. In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited some 45 portraits of O’Keeffe, several of which she were in the nude. The portraits caused a stir in New York society and catapulted O’Keeffe into the public eye. In the years following, Stieglitz put on yearly exhibitions of her work at his galleries: 291, The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. The shows proved to be enormous successes. In 1928, her calla lily paintings sold for a record $25,000.

With her friend Rebecca Strand, wife of photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976), O’Keeffe made her first trip to the Southwest in 1929. While in New Mexico, she purchased the landmark Ghost Ranch house and a property in Abiquiu, where she spent her summers for the next several years. The New Mexican setting greatly inspired O’Keeffe, and it provided her a retreat from the bustling cityscape of New York City.

When Stieglitz passed away in 1946, O’Keeffe returned to New York to settle his finances. In 1949, she moved permanently to her properties in New Mexico, where she spent most of the next three decades painting in near isolation.

In the early 1970s, she suffered from macular degeneration, which nearly left her blind. However, this did not stop her from producing art. With the aid of her assistant, sculptor Juan Hamilton, she continued to create original art works well into the next decade. On March 6, 1986, Georgia O’Keeffe died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe, NM at the age of 98.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

- Georgia O’Keeffe

Though Georgia O’Keeffe was known as a talented painter in her student days, it was not until portraits of her were exhibited at Alfred Steiglitz’ 291 gallery that the whole world seemed to know who she was. Stieglitz’ intimate, often abstract, portraits of the handsome O’Keeffe succeeded in introducing her to the circles of the New York avant-garde. During their marriage, Stieglitz acted as her agent and in turn, controlled much of her public image and promotion. By the time she retreated to New Mexico, the daughter of a Midwestern farmer was now considered a leading American painter.

O’Keeffe’s involvement with Stieglitz allowed her to actively take part in the male dominated avant-garde that flourished in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. She socialized with leading painters and photographers of the period, including: Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. Stieglitz, himself, took the role of her most prominent critic, supporter, agent, and publicist.

During her stay in New York, O’Keeffe’s painterly treatment matured into the unique personal style she is known for today. Working primarily in watercolor and charcoal, O’Keeffe experimented with organic, abstract forms. This approach soon evolved into radically simplified shapes, which she then transferred over to the medium of oil paint. Turning her attention to motifs from nature, O’Keeffe produced her first “flower paintings” in the mid-1920s.

Today, she is best remembered for these suggestive, expressionist paintings. However, up until her death, she fought for her independence from critics and for her unique vision stating: “Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all you own association with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower- and I don’t.”

Once Stieglitz passed away, she moved permanently to her beloved New Mexico. Leaving behind her role as the wife of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe now took on the identity of the shaman-like, artist of the desert land. Far away from the pressure and criticism of the New York art world, she found the freedom and isolation to wholeheartedly pursue painting to her own ends. Once in the Southwest, she discovered endless inspiration for her canvases. She once remarked on the topic of the New Mexican landscape: "It's my private mountain, It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it."

Myths and legends surround these years O’Keeffe spent in New Mexico. Immersed in the desert, O’Keeffe used the nature of the land as her predominant subject matter: the desert hills, flowers, and animal bones. Her paintings are few in subject matter, but vastly different in terms of composition. Critics have often referred to these paintings as “revelations” in her career. Ever the visionary, O’Keeffe and her paintings remain an icon of American modernism to this day.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1887 Born in Sun Prairie, WI
  • 1905-1906 Studies at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1907-08 Attends Arts Student’s League
  • 1908-11 Briefly works in Chicago as a freelance commercial illustrator. Falls ill with Typhoid fever and moves to Charlottesville, VI
  • 1912 During summer, attends drawing classes at the University of Virginia. Moves to Amarillo, TX.
  • 1913 Returns to University of Virginia as a teaching assistant
  • 1914-15 Attends Teachers College, Columbia University. Later moves to Columbia, SC for a teaching position
  • 1916 O’Keeffe teaches in Virginia and Texas. O’Keeffe included in a group show at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291
  • 1917 First solo-exhibition at 291
  • 1918 Returns to South Texas for a brief trip home and then moves back to New York to live with Stieglitz
  • 1924 Marries Alfred Stieglitz
  • 1929 Makes first trip to Santa Fe, NM
  • 1932 Falls ill and ceases to paint
  • 1933 Treated for psychoneurosis and recovers in Bermuda
  • 1936 Spends first summer at Rancho de los Burros, the Ghost Ranch
  • 1940 Buys Ghost Ranch house and finds Abiquiu house property in New Mexico
  • 1943 Visits Chicago to plan and attend a retrospective of her works
  • 1945 Purchases Abiquiu property, near Santa Fe, NM
  • 1946 Alfred Steiglitz dies and O’Keeffe first contacts Edith Halpert, who becomes her sole agent in 1950
  • 1949 Moves permanently to New Mexico and elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1951 Visits Mexico City
  • 1958 Travels to New York
  • 1963 Replaces Edith Halpert with Doris Bry as her agent
  • 1968 O’Keeffe’s eyesight exhibits first problems
  • 1971 Suffers from a partial loss of her eyesight
  • 1972 Finishes last unassisted oil painting
  • 1973 Meets potter-sculptor and future assistant, friend, and traveling companion Juan Hamilton
  • 1977 Dismisses Doris Bry as her agent
  • 1984 Moves to a house near Santa Fe to be closer to medical facilities
  • 1986 Dies at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe, NM
  • 1989 The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundations is established
  • 1997 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM is founded
  • 1998 Abiquiu House is designated as a National Historic Landmark and her Ghost ranch House is claimed for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Research Center
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Amarillo Museum of Art, TX
  • Amon Carter Museum, TX
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
  • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
  • Crocker Art Museum, CA
  • Currier Gallery of Art, NH
  • Dayton Art Institute, OH
  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
  • Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, NM
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
  • Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM
  • Museum of Modern Art, NY
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.
  • New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
  • North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
  • Oklahoma City Art Museum, OK
  • Orange County Museum of Art, CA
  • Saint Louis Art Museum, MI
  • San Diego Museum of Art, CA
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
  • The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
  • The Newark Museum, NJ
  • Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT
  • Walker Art Center, MN
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1916 291 Gallery
  • 1924 Anderson Galleries
  • 1929, 1946 Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY
  • 1930 Salons of America
  • 1943, 1966 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1945-62 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual Exhibition, PA
  • 1950-68 Downtown Gallery, NY, NY
  • 1959, 1961, 1963 Corcoran Gallery Biennials
  • 1968-on Doris Bry Gallery, NY, NY
  • 1943, 1966 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1951 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • 1960 Worcester Museum of Art, MA
  • 1966 Amon-Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
  • 1970, 1994 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1983 Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, Roslyn, NY
  • 1984 Madison Art Center, Madison, WI
  • 1985 Amarillo Art Center, TX
  • 1988 Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan
  • 1987-8, 2000 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • 1989, 1996 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
  • 1987 National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
  • 1990 Honolulu Academy of Arts, HI
  • 1992, 1995 The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • 1992 Williams College Museum of Art, MA
  • 2001 Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
  • 2002 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM
  • 2004 Sullivan Goss-An American Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1963 Creative Arts Award, Brandeis University
  • 1970 Gold Medal, Painting, National Institute of Arts ands Letters
  • 1971 M. Carey Thomas Award, Bryn Mawr College
  • 1972 Edward MacDowell Medal, Bryn Mawr College
  • 1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Eldredge, Charles C. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.
    2. 2. Hardin, Jennifer. Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist In Focus. St. Petersburg, FL: Museum of Fine Arts, 1998.
    3. 3. Georgia O’Keeffe 1887- 1986. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989.
    4. 4. Georgia O’Keeffe. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 1943.
    5. 5. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York, NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1970.
    6. 6. Georgia O’Keeffe. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 1960.
    7. 7. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Exhibition of the Work of the Artist from 1915-1966. Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum of Art, 1966.
    8. 8. Lynes, Barbara Buhler and Russell Bowman. O’Keeffe’s O’Keeffes: The Artist’s Collection. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2001.
    9. 9. Lisle, Laurie. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico, 1986.
    10. 10. Messinger, Lisa Mintz. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.
    11. 11. Patten, Christina Taylor and Alvarado Cardona-Hine. Miss O’Keefe. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
    12. 12. Poling, John D. Painting with O’Keeffe. Texas Tech University Press, 1999.
    13. 13. Turner, Elizabeth Hutton. Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things. Washington, D.C.: The Phillips Collection, 1999.