Life and Major Accomplishments of Georgia O’Keeffe, a Pioneer of Modern American Art
Georgia O’Keeffe, born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, was a prominent American artist known for her innovative and iconic paintings of large-scale flowers, New York skyscrapers, New Mexico landscapes, and various abstract forms.
She played a crucial role in the development of American modernism, particularly in the realm of abstract art. Her life and work are a testament to her pioneering spirit and the profound impact she had on the art world.
World History Edu explore Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and her journey to becoming a modern flower painting master.
Georgia O’Keeffe showed an early aptitude for art and began formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905.
She continued her education at the Art Students League in New York City under the guidance of influential artist and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged her to explore abstraction and personal expression.
O’Keeffe briefly worked as a commercial artist in Chicago before focusing on her own artistic journey. Her unique style began to emerge in the 1910s when she created a series of abstract charcoal drawings, exploring themes like nature and abstraction. She gained recognition for her innovative approach, and her work was included in exhibitions in New York.
In the 1910s and early 1920s, O’Keeffe created abstract works that emphasized form, color, and simplicity. Her famous painting “Black Iris” (1926) exemplifies her fascination with the intricacies of flowers and her ability to transform them into abstract compositions. During this period, she married renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was a key figure in promoting her work.
O’Keeffe’s work in New York City during the 1920s was notable for her interpretations of urban landscapes, particularly skyscrapers. Paintings like “Radiator Building—Night, New York” (1927) capture the energy and dynamism of the city.
In the late 1920s, O’Keeffe began visiting New Mexico, a place that would deeply influence her art and life. The stark landscapes, adobe buildings, and desert flora of New Mexico became central subjects in her work. Her iconic paintings of desert bones and the New Mexico landscape, like “Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue” (1931), showcase her ability to transform natural forms into powerful artistic statements.
O’Keeffe is perhaps best known for her large-scale, close-up depictions of flowers. Works like “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932) have become iconic images in American art. These paintings reflect her belief that through close examination, one can discover the beauty and intricacy of the natural world.
O’Keeffe’s art continued to evolve throughout her career. She explored themes of abstraction, landscape, and still life, often pushing the boundaries of traditional representation. Her focus on abstraction was exemplified in works like “Blue II” (1916) and “Pelvis with Moon” (1943).
O’Keeffe’s art gained widespread recognition and acclaim, and she had numerous solo exhibitions in prestigious galleries and museums. Her work was frequently exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, which played a pivotal role in promoting American modernism. She became one of the first American artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1946.
Georgia O’Keeffe spent her later years in New Mexico, where she continued to paint and draw. She created works that explored the vastness of the New Mexican landscape, such as “From the White Place” (1940). Her art during this period often incorporated elements of abstraction and spirituality.
Her legacy is profound and enduring. She shattered gender barriers in the art world and became one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. Her ability to find beauty in everyday objects and the natural world continues to inspire artists and art enthusiasts worldwide.
O’Keeffe’s works are held in major museums and collections, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She remains an iconic figure not only for her art but also for her pioneering spirit and the significant role she played in the development of American modernism.
Georgia O’Keeffe passed away on March 6, 1986, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 98. Her ashes were scattered at her beloved Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
O’Keeffe’s “Music Series”
In the 1920s, Georgia O’Keeffe painted a series of oil paintings known as the “Music” series, inspired by the concept of synesthesia, where sounds evoke visual sensations.
These paintings share similarities with her flower and landscape works, featuring overlapping shapes, flowing forms, and harmonious color blends. O’Keeffe’s mastery of color adds emotional depth to her art, while her skilled use of oil paints creates smooth textures and dynamic shapes.
Her ability to translate sensory experiences into visual art contributes to the enduring appeal and success of her paintings.
Influence of Arthur Wesley Dow
Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings often pushed the boundaries of abstraction to the point where they could be mistaken for something entirely different from flowers.
While she received traditional training at prestigious art institutions, her encounter with the works of artist Arthur Wesley Dow played a pivotal role in her transition to abstraction.
Dow’s approach encouraged artists to capture the essence of an object rather than just its physical representation. Before her iconic flower series, O’Keeffe experimented with abstract charcoal drawings, representing her early attempts to move beyond the confines of traditional art and explore the deeper, more symbolic aspects of her subjects.
O’Keeffe’s ability to draw inspiration from her surroundings
Throughout her life and artistic career, Georgia O’Keeffe’s travels and residences in different places influenced the subjects of her paintings. During summers spent at her husband’s family estate near Lake George, O’Keeffe found inspiration in the jack-in-the-pulpit flowers she had encountered in high school.
She also created art featuring corn stalks and close-up depictions of maple leaves during this period. O’Keeffe’s ability to draw inspiration from her surroundings allowed her to capture the essence of various landscapes and natural elements in her distinctive style.
Lake George’s lush surroundings and vibrant plant life influenced Georgia O’Keeffe’s color choices in her paintings, featuring deep purples, reds, greens, and blues. Her Lake George studio was a significant source of inspiration, leading to over 195 works of art. The rich atmosphere and natural beauty of the area played a pivotal role in her landscape and flower paintings, shaping the colors and moods of her artwork.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s time in Hawaii
Georgia O’Keeffe’s trip to Hawaii in 1939 inspired her to paint flowers she had not encountered in her upbringing. Her works from this trip, like “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” “Heliconia: Crabs Claw Ginger,” “White Bird of Paradise,” and “Pineapple Bud,” exhibit lighter shades of pinks, yellows, and greens compared to her vibrant New York flower paintings.
In New Mexico, O’Keeffe found inspiration in native plants like jimson weed, hollyhocks, and roses. These flowers made appearances in her desert landscape and skull and bone paintings, often depicted on a smaller scale but maintaining their powerful presence.
Paintings of skulls and deserts
In August 1934, Georgia O’Keeffe made Ghost Ranch, located north of Abiquiú, her new home. By 1940, she had settled into a house on the ranch property. The stunning, multicolored cliffs surrounding the ranch served as the inspiration for many of her iconic landscape paintings.
Over the years 1934 to 1936, she created a series of landscape artworks that were deeply influenced by the New Mexico desert. These works often featured prominent depictions of animal skulls, such as “Ram’s Head with Hollyhock” (1935) and “Deer’s Head with Pedernal” (1936), as well as “Summer Days” (1936).
“Summer Days” is one of her most renowned paintings, showcasing a desert scene with a deer skull surrounded by vibrant wildflowers, resembling “Ram’s Head with Hollyhock” but with the skull floating above the horizon.
Criticisms of her paintings
Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings faced misconceptions during her lifetime, largely due to the way male critics interpreted her work in the 1920s.
Many saw her art as explicit representations of female genitalia, considering them vulgar because they were created by a woman. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and his influence within their artistic community contributed to this view.
However, contemporary critics now recognize O’Keeffe as an abstract modernist ahead of her time, with her art aiming to capture the essence, textures, colors, and shapes of the flowers. While her intent was subtlety, her choice of flower subjects like irises, orchids, and lilies added to the sexualized interpretations.
Paintings of skyscraper
In 1925, after moving to a 30th-floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel, Georgia O’Keeffe began painting a series of New York skyscrapers and cityscapes. Notable works from this period include “Radiator Building–Night, New York,” “New York Street with Moon,” “The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y.,” and “City Night.”
She depicted the Precisionist style in these pieces. In 1928, O’Keeffe painted “East River from the Thirtieth Story of the Shelton Hotel,” showcasing her view of the East River and Queens’ factories. The next year marked her transition to New Mexico, which became a significant source of inspiration for her future work.
The Brooklyn Museum hosted a retrospective of her work in 1927. Also in 1928, Alfred Stieglitz reported the sale of six of O’Keeffe’s calla lily paintings to a French buyer for $25,000, which raised her profile and led to higher prices for her paintings.
The 2009 biographical drama film about Georgia O’Keeffe
“Georgia O’Keeffe” is a 2009 American television biographical drama film that tells the story of the renowned American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Directed by Bob Balaban and starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, it was produced by City Entertainment in association with Sony Television and aired on Lifetime Television. The film explores O’Keeffe’s life and her relationship with Stieglitz.
The film “Georgia O’Keeffe” received numerous award nominations at the 2010 Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie, and nominations for both lead actor (Jeremy Irons) and lead actress (Joan Allen). It was also nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and received recognition from the Directors Guild of America, Producers Guild, and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The film’s success in award nominations made it the most critically acclaimed in Lifetime Television’s history.
Honors O’Keeffe received
Georgia O’Keeffe received numerous awards and honors during her lifetime. She received an honorary degree from the College of William & Mary in 1938. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966.
O’Keeffe received the M. Carey Thomas Award at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1973.
In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Frequently asked questions about Georgia O’Keeffe and her works
Where was she born?
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents, Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida Totto, were dairy farmers. She was named after her maternal grandfather, George Victor Totto, a Hungarian count who immigrated to the United States in 1848. O’Keeffe’s Irish and Hungarian heritage would later influence her life and art in various ways.
Georgia O’Keeffe, the second of seven children, attended Town Hall School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. At age 10, she aspired to be an artist and received early art instruction from local watercolorist Sara Mann alongside her sisters, Ida and Anita.
She later attended Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin, as a boarder. In 1902, her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where her father started a concrete block business. O’Keeffe completed high school at Chatham Episcopal Institute (now Chatham Hall) in Virginia, graduating in 1905. She was also a member of the Kappa Delta sorority during her time there.
How important were flowers to the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are among her most celebrated works, and they represent a significant part of her artistic legacy. Her fascination with flowers as subjects of her art began in the 1920s, and these iconic paintings have left a lasting impact on the world of art.
In her flower series, O’Keeffe explored the intricate details, vibrant colors, and sensuous forms of flowers through close-up compositions. These paintings transcend mere botanical depictions; they are powerful expressions of her unique vision and a celebration of the beauty and vitality of the natural world.
The Wisconsin-born painter’s ability to transform familiar subjects into captivating works of art has made her flower paintings enduring symbols of American modernism.
How did Georgia O’Keeffe come to have a deep fascination with flowers?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s fascination with flowers began early in her life when she encountered a jack-in-the-pulpit plant in high school. This experience ignited her interest in the shapes and textures of flowers, eventually leading her to create a series of paintings featuring this particular flower in 1930.
Her childhood exposure to nature in rural Wisconsin left a lasting impression on her, influencing her artistic journey and the way she portrayed flowers in her iconic works.
How did her style evolve over the years?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic journey began with traditional still life and watercolor paintings, such as her 1915 work “Red Canna.” Over time, her style evolved towards modernism.
In 1919, she transitioned to using oil paint for her iconic red canna lily flowers, resulting in vibrant and richly pigmented artworks. Her time in New York City was influential, and her canna lily paintings grew progressively larger and more abstract. This shift in style marked O’Keeffe’s transition from traditional to modernist art, setting her on a path to become one of the most renowned American artists of the 20th century.
What influenced her decision to make her flower paintings huge?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s decision to enlarge her flower paintings marked a departure from traditional approaches, giving rise to a modern and minimalist style. Her art was a reflection of her unique perspective on the world, emphasizing the beauty of often overlooked or forgotten objects.
In her own words, O’Keeffe conveyed her desire for people to pause and truly observe the world around them, particularly the simple beauty of a flower. By presenting these flowers in a larger-than-life format, she compelled viewers to take notice and appreciate the intricate details and elegance of nature, even in the midst of a bustling city.
How have critics interpreted Georgia O’Keeffe’s works?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s art has been subject to evolving interpretations over different generations. In her lifetime, her flower paintings were seen through contrasting lenses.
In the 1920s, they were often considered sexual and vulgar due to Freudian viewpoints and societal shifts, which associated female expressions with hidden sexual desires. Women’s increasing sexual independence during this period contributed to these interpretations.
In contrast, during the 1970s, feminist groups hailed O’Keeffe as an icon, celebrating her work as a representation of female sexual independence. O’Keeffe herself, while advocating women’s rights, primarily sought recognition as an individual artist and aimed for independence in her work.
What was the relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz?
Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship played a significant role in shaping both of their careers and artistic endeavors. It all began in January 1916 when suffragist Anita Pollitzer showed Stieglitz a set of charcoal drawings by O’Keeffe.
Impressed by her art, Stieglitz decided to exhibit her work at 291 Gallery without her permission, leading to O’Keeffe’s first encounter with him and her chastising him for exhibiting her work without consent.
Their connection deepened over time, and they began exchanging increasingly romantic letters. By June 1918, O’Keeffe moved to New York, with Stieglitz promising her a quiet studio for painting. However, their relationship became complex when Stieglitz took nude photographs of O’Keeffe while his wife, Emmy, was away. After Emmy’s return, Stieglitz found a separate place for them to live together.
Stieglitz’s infatuation with O’Keeffe grew, and he photographed her extensively from 1918 to 1925. These photographs captured various facets of her character and beauty, often featuring close-up studies of her body, especially her hands. Stieglitz’s work during this period was prolific, with over 350 mounted prints of O’Keeffe.
In 1920, Stieglitz organized an exhibition of his photographs, showcasing 146 prints, with 46 featuring O’Keeffe, including numerous nudes. However, O’Keeffe was not identified as the model on any of the prints.
Their relationship continued to evolve, leading to Stieglitz’s divorce and, eventually, their marriage in 1924. O’Keeffe explained that they married partly to soothe the troubles of Stieglitz’s daughter, Kitty, who was suffering from depression.
As the years passed, O’Keeffe spent much of her time painting in New Mexico, while Stieglitz remained in New York, except for summer vacations at Lake George. Their relationship, characterized by avoidance of confrontation, involved a system of deals and trade-offs.
In 1946, Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke, and O’Keeffe was by his side when he passed away. After his death, she took control of An American Place, a gallery he had operated.
Stieglitz left behind a legacy of more than 2,500 mounted photographs, and O’Keeffe contributed to preserving and sharing his work. She donated a substantial portion of his photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1949, which later became known as the “key set.” This collection, now numbering 1,642 photographs, includes a comprehensive record of Stieglitz’s artistic career.
In 2002, the National Gallery published a catalog with detailed annotations about each photograph in the “key set,” providing insights into Stieglitz’s aesthetic composition and artistic evolution.
What impact did her time in New Mexico have on her work?
O’Keeffe’s move to New Mexico in the late 1920s had a profound impact on her work. The Southwestern landscapes and culture inspired many of her iconic paintings.
Who was her husband?
In 1916, her friend Anita Pollitzer showed her charcoal drawings to photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. He was captivated by her work and exhibited it in New York City, marking a turning point in her career. O’Keeffe moved to New York and developed a close personal and professional relationship with Stieglitz, who became her mentor and later her husband.
What inspired Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork?
Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork was inspired by a variety of sources and influences throughout her life.
She had a deep connection with nature, and much of her work draws inspiration from the natural world. Her flower paintings, desert landscapes, and close-ups of natural forms showcase her fascination with the beauty and intricacy of the environment.
Also, her move to New Mexico in the 1930s had a profound impact on her art. The stark landscapes, vibrant colors, and unique flora and fauna of the region became recurring themes in her paintings.
O’Keeffe’s travels to various places, including Lake George, New York, Hawaii, and Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, provided her with fresh perspectives and subject matter for her art.
O’Keeffe’s personal experiences and emotions often found their way into her art. For example, her anxiety about her brother serving in World War I is thought to have inspired her painting “The Flag.”
O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, played a significant role in her artistic development. His avant-garde photography and his gallery, “291,” exposed her to new ideas and artistic circles.
Who were the figures who influenced O’Keeffe?
O’Keeffe was influenced by teachers who introduced her to innovative ideas about art, including Arthur Wesley Dow and Alon Bement, who encouraged her to explore abstract and modernist approaches.
When did her breakthrough come?
In 1916, her charcoal drawings were discovered by the influential photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited her work at his gallery in New York City. This marked the beginning of her career as a professional artist.
She married Stieglitz in 1924, and their relationship had a profound influence on her life and art.
Under Stieglitz’s influence and support, O’Keeffe began exploring modernist approaches and started developing her unique artistic style. She transitioned from teaching to focusing on her artistic career.
What is the significance of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings?
O’Keeffe’s art, particularly her flower paintings, has been interpreted in various ways, including as symbols of female sexuality. While she denied such interpretations, she became an unintentional feminist icon.
O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are considered pioneering works of American modernism. Her approach to depicting flowers departed from traditional, representational styles and embraced abstraction, emphasizing form, color, and texture.
Also, O’Keeffe’s flower paintings demonstrate her innovative artistic techniques. She explored close-up views of flowers, allowing viewers to see intricate details and textures that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Her floral subjects, along with her desert landscapes, celebrated the beauty and magnificence of nature. Her work reflects her deep connection to the natural world and her ability to capture its essence.
The above explains why some of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, such as “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” have become iconic and are recognized as symbols of American art. They continue to be reproduced and celebrated in various forms.
How did Georgia O’Keeffe die?
In 1972, Georgia O’Keeffe’s eyesight significantly deteriorated due to macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. Consequently, she ceased painting with oil independently.
The following year, she hired John Bruce “Juan” Hamilton as her live-in assistant and caretaker. Hamilton, a potter, not only assisted O’Keeffe but also encouraged her to continue painting and helped her write her autobiography. Published in 1976, her autobiography, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” featured her artwork “Summer Days” (1936) on the cover and became a bestseller.
In her later years, she worked in watercolor and continued sketching with pencil and charcoal until 1984.
Georgia O’Keeffe moved to Santa Fe in 1984 and passed away on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
Her ashes were scattered on the land surrounding Ghost Ranch, as per her wishes.
Following her death, there was a legal dispute over her will, mainly due to codicils added in the 1980s that left the majority of her $65 million estate to Hamilton. The case was eventually settled out of court in July 1987 and became a well-known precedent in estate planning.
Did you know…?
Between 1905 and 1906, Georgia O’Keeffe attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, excelling in her studies with Dutch-American artist John Vanderpoel. However, due to contracting typhoid fever, she had to take a year off.
In 1907, she continued her art education at the Art Students League in New York City under prominent instructors like William Merritt Chase. Her talent earned her recognition, including winning the League’s still-life prize. Financial difficulties forced her to work as a commercial artist in Chicago until 1910 when she returned to Virginia due to illness. O’Keeffe later taught art, including a position at her former school, Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia.
In 1912, Georgia O’Keeffe attended a summer art class at the University of Virginia, taught by Alon Bement, a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College. There, she was introduced to the innovative ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, inspired by Japanese art principles of design and composition. O’Keeffe began experimenting with abstract compositions, deviating from realism.
From 1912 to 1914, she taught art in Amarillo, Texas, and continued her studies at the University of Virginia during the summers. A class at Teachers College of Columbia University with Dow in 1914 further influenced her artistic approach, contributing to her pivotal role in American modernism.
Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe first met in December 1931 at an exhibition opening in New York City. Their friendship grew over the years, and they remained in contact even when O’Keeffe was recovering from a nervous breakdown in a hospital and later in Bermuda. In the 1950s, they visited each other’s homes on a few occasions, solidifying their bond.
Georgia O’Keeffe had notable guests at her ranch, including American aviator and military officer Charles Anne Lindbergh, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, and American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. She was also friends with American photographer Eliot Porter, often times camping and traveling with him.
Georgia O’Keeffe has been the subject of various artistic and cultural representations. In 1991, PBS aired a production titled “A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz,” featuring Jane Alexander as O’Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Alfred Stieglitz.
In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring O’Keeffe. In 2013, a stamp featuring her painting “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930” was released as part of the Modern Art in America series.
Following her passing, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was established in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to preserve and showcase her works, providing a lasting tribute to her legacy and contribution to American modern art.
In 2014, Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” fetched an impressive $44,405,000 at auction. The painting was sold to Walmart heiress Alice Walton.