Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children and grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. As a child she received art lessons at home and her abilities were quickly recognized and encouraged by teachers throughout her school years. By the time she graduated from high school in 1905, O’Keeffe had determined to make her way as an artist. O’Keeffe pursued studies at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905–1906) and at the Art Students League, New York (1907–1908), where she was quick to master the principles of the approach to art-making that then formed the basis of the curriculum—imitative realism. In 1908 she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting “Untitled” (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Shortly thereafter, however, O’Keeffe quit making art, saying later that she had known then that she could never achieve distinction working within this tradition.
In 1905, O’Keeffe began her serious formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League of New York, but she felt constrained by her lessons that focused on recreating or copying what was in nature. In 1908, unable to fund further education, she worked for two years as a commercial illustrator, and then spent seven years between 1911 and 1918 teaching in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina. During that time, she studied art during the summers between 1912 and 1914 and was introduced to the principles and philosophies of Arthur Wesley Dow, who espoused created works of art based upon personal style, design, and interpretation of subjects, rather than trying to copy or represent them. This caused a major change in the way she felt about and approached art, as seen in the beginning stages of her watercolors from her studies at the University of Virginia and more dramatically in the charcoal drawings that she produced in 1915 that led to total abstraction. Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer and photographer, held an exhibit of her works in 1916. Over the next couple of years, she taught and continued her studies at the Teachers College, Columbia University.
Her interest in art was rekindled four years later (1912) when she took a summer course for art teachers at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, taught by Alon Bement of Teachers College, Columbia University. Bement introduced O’Keeffe to the then revolutionary ideas of his colleague at Teachers College, artist and art educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow’s ideas offered O’Keeffe an alternative to imitative realism and she experimented with them for two years, while she was either teaching art in the Amarillo, Texas public schools (1912-14) or working summers in Virginia as Bement’s assistant. O’Keeffe was in New York again from fall 1914 to June 1915, taking courses at Teachers College. In an attempt to discover a personal language through which she could express her own feelings and ideas, she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings that are now recognized as being among the most innovative in all of American art of the period. She mailed some of these drawings to a former Columbia classmate who showed them to the internationally known photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, on January 1, 1916. By the time she arrived in New York in June, she and Stieglitz, who were married in 1924, had fallen in love and subsequently lived and worked together in New York (winter and spring) and at the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George, New York (summer and fall) until 1929, when O’Keeffe spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico.
From 1923 until his death in 1946, Stieglitz worked assiduously and effectively to promote O’Keeffe and her work, organizing annual exhibitions of her art at The Anderson Galleries (1923–1925), The Intimate Gallery (1925–1929), and An American Place (1929–1946). As early as the mid-1920s, when O’Keeffe first began painting New York skyscrapers as well as large-scale depictions of flowers as if seen close up, which are among her best-known pictures, she had become recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists. Three years after Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe moved from New York to her beloved New Mexico, whose stunning vistas and stark landscape configurations had inspired her work since 1929. Indeed, many of the pictures she painted in New Mexico, especially her landscape paintings of the area, have become as well known as the work she had completed earlier in New York. Indeed, the area nourished O’Keeffe’s creative efforts from 1929 until 1984, when failing eyesight forced her into retirement. She lived either at her Ghost Ranch house, which she purchased in 1940, or at the house she purchased in Abiquiu in 1945. She made New Mexico her permanent home in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, and continued working in oil until the mid–1970’s. She worked in pencil and watercolor until 1982 and produced objects in clay from the mid-1970’s until two years before her death in 1986, at the age of 98.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s first signs of macular degeneration appeared in 1964 when, as Jeffrey Hogrefe relates in his 1992 biography, she “rounded a curve in the road she was driving from Ghost Ranch on a brilliantly sunny day… and the valley narrowed to a patch of greenery along the river. It felt, she said later, as if a cloud had entered her eyeballs…”
In 1972, she finished her last unassisted oil paintings—Black Rock with Blue Sky and White Clouds, in which a black ovoid stone dominates the canvas, a sliver of blue sky and clouds behind it, and The Beyond, which shows a wide band of darkness at the bottom of the canvas creeping toward the horizon line; one has the sense looking at it that all light will inevitably be engulfed. “My left eye has become much more cloudy,” she wrote in a letter that year, “and it’s as if my right eye is beginning to cloud. I assume I should know there is nothing that could be done about it. Am I correct?”
In the early to mid-seventies, she sometimes elicited assistance from others when working on her canvases, such as the summer of 1976, when she directed John Poling, then a handyman at Ghost Ranch, to execute her conception of several works, including From a Day with Juan. When he saw the painting published in ART news, he asked for credit, and though she advanced the claim that his “contribution had no artistic significance” and he was “the equivalent of a palette knife,” in the years that followed she turned more to clay as the last medium in which she worked.