Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, Modernist American Artist

American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) stands at an easel outdoors, adjusting a canvas from her 'Pelvis Series- Red With Yellow,' Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960
Georgia O'Keeffe With Pelvis Series- Red With Yellow, In Desert, NM.

Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images 

Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was an American modernist artist whose bold semi-abstract paintings pulled American art into a new era. She is best known for her stark images of flowers and iconic landscapes of the American Southwest, where she made her home for the latter half of her life. 

Fast Facts: Georgia O'Keeffe

  • Full Name: Georgia Totto O'Keeffe
  • Known For: American modernist artist, made most famous by her close up paintings of flowers and bones. 
  • Born: November 15, 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
  • Parents: Francis O’Keeffe and Ida Totto 
  • Died: March 6, 1986 in Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Education: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Students League, Teachers College, Columbia University 
  • Mediums: Painting 
  • Art Movement: Modernism 
  • Selected Works: Evening Star III (1917), City Night (1926), Black Iris (1926), Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931), Sky Above Clouds IV (1965)
  • Awards and Honors: Edward MacDowell Medal (1972), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), National Medal of Arts (1985)
  • Spouse: Alfred Stieglitz (1924-1946) 
  • Notable Quote: "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not."

Though O’Keeffe often rejected the interpretation, her paintings have been described as the portrayal of an unleashed feminine desire, as the recesses of the flora she painted have been interpreted as a veiled reference to female sexuality. In reality, O’Keeffe’s oeuvre extends far beyond the facile interpretation of her flower paintings, and rather should be credited with her much more significant contribution to the formation of a uniquely American art form. 

Early Life (1887-1906)

Georgia O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to Hungarian and Irish immigrants, the eldest daughter of seven children. O’Keeffe’s parents were, to many observers, an odd pair––their marriage was the union between the hardworking Irish farmer Francis O’Keeffe and a sophisticated European lady (said to be descended from aristocracy), Ida Totto, who never shed the poise and pride she inherited from her Hungarian grandfather. Nevertheless, the two raised the young O’Keeffe to be independent and curious, an avid reader and explorer of the world.

Portrait Of Georgia Okeeffe (1887-1986) ,
Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918. Private Collection. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Though the artistic life would eventually claim the eldest O’Keeffe daughter, she forever identified with the laid back, hardworking attitude of her father and always had affection for the open spaces of the American Midwest. Education was always a priority for her parents, and thus, all the O’Keeffe girls were well educated. 

O’Keeffe exhibited an artistic ability early on in life (though those who knew her in youth may have insisted her younger sister Ida––who went on to be a painter as well––was the more naturally gifted). She attended art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League, and Columbia Teachers’ College, and was taught by the influential painters Arthur Dow and William Merritt Chase. 

Early Work and Influences (1907-1916)

O'Keeffe moved to New York in 1907 to attend classes at the Art Students League, which would serve as her first introduction to the world of modern art.

In 1908, the sketches of Auguste Rodin were displayed in New York City by the modernist photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. The owner of the legendary Gallery 291, Stieglitz was a visionary and largely credited with introducing the United States to modernism, with the work of artists like Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. 

Georgia-O-Keeffe_red-Poppy.jpg
Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Poppy, 1927. WikiartVisualArt Encyclopedia

While Stieglitz was worshipped in the artistic circles of which O’Keeffe was a part at Columbia Teachers College (where she began study in 1912), the pair was not formally introduced until almost ten years after the painter first visited the gallery. 

In 1916, while Georgia was teaching art to students in South Carolina, Anita Pollitzer, a great friend of O’Keeffe from the Teachers’ College with whom she frequently corresponded, brought a few drawings to show to Stieglitz. Upon seeing them, (according to myth) he said, “Finally a woman on paper.” Though probably apocryphal, this story reveals an interpretation of O’Keeffe’s work that would follow it beyond the artist’s lifetime, as if the femininity of the artist were undeniable by just looking at the work. 

Relationship With Alfred Stieglitz (1916-1924)

Though Stieglitz had been married to another woman for decades (with whom he had a daughter), he began a romantic affair with O’Keeffe, 24 years his junior. The couple fell deeply in love, as both were moved by their mutual commitment to art. O’Keeffe was embraced by the Stieglitz family, despite the illicit nature of their relationship. 

Alfred Stieglitz sits to the left of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe beneath a painting and sculpture
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), American painter, pictured with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Undated photo. Bettmann / Getty Images 

Before their relationship began, Stieglitz had largely given up his photography work. However, the love he found with O’Keeffe ignited in him a creative passion, and Stieglitz considered O’Keeffe a muse, producing over 300 images of her over their life together. He exhibited over 40 of these works in a gallery show in 1921, his first exhibition in many years. 

The couple was married in 1924, after Stieglitz’s first wife filed for divorce. 

Mature Career

O’Keeffe began to receive significant praise after only two years in New York. Her work was widely written up and often was the talk of the town, as the revelation of a woman’s perspective (however much that perspective was read into the work by the critics) on canvas was captivating. 

Preview Of The Tate Modern's Georgia O'Keefe Exhibition
A member of staff poses for a photograph beside 'Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow' by American artist Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern on July 4, 2016 in London, England. Rob Stothard / Getty Images

O’Keeffe, however, did not believe the critics had gotten her right, and at one point invited Mabel Dodge, a female acquaintance, to write about her work. She bristled at the Freudian interpretations of her work as expressions of a deep sexuality. These opinions followed her in her shift from abstraction to her iconic flower paintings, in which single blooms filled up the canvas at close range. (Dodge eventually did write on O’Keeffe’s work, but the result was not for what the artist had hoped.) 

Though 291 Gallery closed in 1917, Stieglitz opened another gallery, which he named The Intimate Gallery, in 1925. As O'Keeffe worked quickly and produced a lot of work, she exhibited annually in a solo show held by the gallery. 

New Mexico

Every year, O’Keeffe and her husband would spend the summer at Lake George with Stieglitz’s family, an arrangement that frustrated the artist, who preferred to control her environment and have long stretches of peace and quiet in order to paint. 

Obra 'Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II' realizada por Georgia O'Keeffe en 1930
Obra 'Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II' realizada por Georgia O'Keeffe en 1930. Georgia o'Keeffe Museum

In 1929, O’Keeffe had finally had enough of these summers in upstate New York. Her latest show in New York had not been received with the same critical acclaim, and thus the artist felt the need to escape the pressures of the city, which she had never loved in the way she loved the American West, where she had spent much of her 20s teaching art. When an artist friend invited her to the town of Taos, already a thriving artist colony, she decided to go. The trip would change her life. She would go back each summer, without her husband. There she produced paintings of the landscape, as well as still lifes of skulls and flowers. 

Mid-Career

In 1930, the Intimate Gallery closed, only to be replaced by another Stieglitz gallery called An American Place, and nicknamed simply “The Place.” O’Keeffe would also display her works there. Around the same time, Stieglitz began an intimate relationship with the gallery’s assistant, a friendship that caused Georgia great distress. She continued to show her work at the Place, however, and found that the Great Depression did not have a significant effect on her painting sales.

In 1943, O’Keeffe had her first retrospective at a major museum, at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she had taken art classes in 1905. As a native Midwesterner, the symbolism of showing in the region's most significant institution was not lost on the artist.

Two people descend the stairs in front of Georgia O'Keeffe's painting of clouds on the horizon
Sky Above Couds IV at the Art Institute of Chicago.  

However, her success was tainted by difficulties with her husband's health. Twenty-four years O’Keeffe’s senior, Stieglitz began slowing down long before his wife. Due to his weak heart, he put down his camera in 1938, having taken his last image of his wife. In 1946, Alfred Stieglitz died. O’Keeffe took his death with expected solemnity and was tasked with dealing with his estate, which she managed to have placed in some of America's finest museums. His papers went to Yale University.

Ghost Ranch and Later Life

In 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe permanently moved to Ghost Ranch, where she had bought property in 1940, and where she would spend the rest of her life. The spiritual connection O’Keeffe had to this Western American land, of which she felt vibrations in her youthful stints as a teacher in Texas, cannot be underestimated. She described New Mexico as the landscape for which she had been waiting her entire life.

Success, of course, continued to follow her. In 1962, she was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Letters, taking the spot of the recently deceased poet E.E. Cummings. In 1970, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine. In fact, her image appeared so often in the press that she was often recognized in public, though she shied away from the direct attention. Museum shows (including a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970) where frequent, as well as numerous honors, including the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford (1977) and the National Medal of Arts (1985) from President Ronald Reagan. 

Image of Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico surrounded by trees and desert landscape
Image of Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

In 1971, O’Keeffe began to lose her eyesight, a devastating development for a woman whose career depended on it. The artist, however, kept painting, sometimes with the help of studio assistants. Later in the same year, a young man named Juan Hamilton showed up at her door to help her with packing her paintings. The two developed a deep friendship, but not without causing scandal in the art world. O’Keeffe eventually severed ties with her old dealer Doris Bry, a result of her connection to the young Hamilton, and allowed much of her estate’s decisions to be made by her new friend. 

Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98. Much of her estate was left to Juan Hamilton, causing controversy among O’Keeffe’s friends and family. He bequeathed much of it to museums and libraries and serves in an advisory capacity to the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. 

Legacy 

Georgia O’Keeffe continues to be celebrated as a painter. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the first museum dedicated to the work of a single female artist, opened its doors in Santa Fe and Abiquiu, New Mexico, in 1997. The Georgia O'Keeffe papers are housed at the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Yale University, where Stieglitz's papers also reside.

There have been tens of museum shows dedicated to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, including a large scale retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2016, as well as a survey of the artist’s clothing and personal effects at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. 

Sources

  • Lisle, Laurie. Portrait of an Artist: a Biography of Georgia OKeeffe. Washington Square Press, 1997.
  • “Timeline.” Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/timeline/.