“When I was still a little girl, I used to think that since I couldn’t do what I wanted to . . . at least I could paint as I wanted to, and say what I wanted to when I painted.” – Georgia O’ Keeffe Georgia O’ Keeffe
On November 15, 1887, the great American artist Georgia O’ Keeffe was born. She was the second of seven children. She grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie Wisconsin where she received art lessons at home. Teachers encouraged her gift throughout her school years and her abilities were both highly praised and recognized. She graduated from high school in 1905 and her greatest ambition was to succeed in the art world.
Georgia attended the Art Institute of Chicago between 1905-1906 and went on to continue her studies at the Art Students League in New York between from1907-1908. She was quick to master the principles of imitative realism and earned the League’s William Merrit Chase still- like prize in 1908 for her unique oil painting entitled “Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot.” Soon after, however, O’Keeffe gave up on being an artist because she believed that she could never achieve distinction among other artists.
Her love for art was rekindled a few years later when she attended an art course aimed at art teachers at the University of Virginia. Alan Bement, her teacher, introduced her to a colleague of his, Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow believed that the goal of art was the expression or the artist’s personal ideas and feelings. He said that this was best achieved through harmonious arrangements of line, color, and lights and darks. She experimented with his ideas for a few years while teaching art in Amarillo, Texas and when she was working as Bement’s assistant during the summer in Virginia. She moved to New York in 1914 and then moved to South Carolina where she taught art at Columbia University. In 1915 she wanted to put Dow’s theories to the test and she began to create a series of charcoal drawlings. These charcoal drawlings are now recognized as being the most innovative in all of American art for that time according to art historians.
Alfred Stieglitz became aware of Georgia’s enormous gift in 1916 when he was shown some of her drawlings by a former classmate of her’s. Alfred Stieglitz, already internationally known for his impressive photography, offered to showcase Georgia’s work at his famous avante- garde gallery, 291. There he exhibited ten of O’Keeffe’s charcoal abstractions and eventually ended up closing the exhibit so that he could showcase the up- and- coming Georgia O’Keeffe’s art. In 1918, Stieglitz offered O’Keeffe financial support so that she could continue painting and she moved from Texas, where she had been since 1916, to New York. Alfred and Georgia shared a love of art and a love for each other and were married in 1924. Alfred, born in 1864, was twenty-seven years older than Georgia. Although Georgia loved Alfred, she was a little displeased that he was divorcing his first wife of thirty- one years.
From 1924-1929, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz worked together at their home at the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George in New York. In 1929, Georgia began spending summers in New Mexico. Her husband worked relentlessly promoting his wife’s art until his death in 1946. He organized exhibitions at the Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery, and an American Place. The longest run was at the American Place, which took place from 1929-1946. It was in the 1920’s that Georgia first started painting her famous close- up paintings of flowers.
In 1947, O’Keeffe moved to her beloved New Mexico for good. She had already purchased a house in 1940, known as Ghost Ranch, and another house in 1945 in Abiquiu. The Ghost Ranch was surrounded by amazing landscapes and was close to sixty miles away from Santé Fe. Her home in Abiquiu was a 5,000-square- foot Spanish Colonial era compound. Georgia had spent three years cleaning up this compound with the help of her friend, Maria Chabot, due to its unkempt appearance and left in shambles by the Archdiocese of Santé Fe. Both homes were of equal inspiration to O’Keeffe. She produced works of art featuring her patio and black door, the cottonwood trees along the Chama River, the White Place, and the road to Santé Fe while living in her Abuquiu home. Georgia created some of her most famous painting in this house, but had to move to Santé Fe because of ill health. After moving away from a place so close to her heart, she died just two years later at the age of 98. She was cremated the next day and Juan Hamilton scattered her ashes from Pedernal Mountain as she had requested.
During her illness, her eyesight became so poor that she could no longer paint. A young man named Juan Hamilton, a potter, came to do odd jobs for O’Keeffe and ultimately became her closest companion in her later years. To curb her artistic hunger to paint, she started working with clay, producing three-dimensional objects. A surprising discovery came in 1986, the year that she died. Of the 2,029 known works of art that she produced during her lifetime, she owned more than half. Georgia’s art has been well known in the United States for over eighty years. There are more than 500 public collections of her work in North and Central America, Europe, and Asia.
Georgia was a professional artist for close to 68 years, establishing a place for women in the modern art world, where they had gone unappreciated for so long. She has won many prestigious awards both during her lifetime and after her death. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was the first female artist to have a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1970, Georgia was awarded the Gold Medal of Painting by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Two presidents have also given Georgia O’Keeffe an enormous amount of recognition. President Gerald Ford awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian given by the government, in 1977 and in 1985; she was awarded the National Medal of Art from President Ronald Reagan.
Georgia O’ Keeffe despised being called a “female artist”. She believed that it shouldn’t matter what gender you are, that art is art no matter who creates it. Georgia also never signed her paintings. She believed that anyone looking at her paintings would be able to recognize it due to her unique painting style. She did, however, mark some of her paintings with a star if she liked it enough. One interesting fact about Georgia O’ Keeffe is that she posed nude for a classmate, Eugene Speicher, because he told her that she might as well because she would never amount to anything more than an art teacher at a school for girls. One painting, entitled “White Rose” that she painted in 1930 in New Mexico, sold for one million dollars at auction a short time before she died.
Georgia O’Keeffe is internationally known, mostly for her beautiful depictions of various flowers. A little known fact is that she also created paintings depicting bones, breathtaking landscapes, and views of the city, including skyscrapers and towers.
Georgia O’Keeffe has definitely left her artistic footprint on the world. It is hard not to stop and stare at her beautiful paintings if you are lucky enough to even catch a glimpse of a print. She has made a place in history for women artists, who might still be considered “amateurs” to this day if she had never begun painting. Recognition of Alfred Stieglitz must also be noted due to his unrelentless ambition to exhibit Georgia’s artwork. Their passion combined gave the world an enormous gift: the ability to appreciate women’s art at a time when the world was narrow- minded.