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O’Keeffe, Georgia

Category: Artist and sculptor

Georgia o O'Keeffe (1887 –1986) was an American artist.  She was born in Wisconsin, however, her father was of Irish descent and her mother was the daughter of a Hungarian count who came to America in 1848. From this I think we can surmise that inherited genes played a big part in her abilities.

By age ten she had decided to become an artist. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906. She caught typhoid in 1906.

In 1907, she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied under William Merritt Chase.

O'Keeffe almost gave up as a result of this training.  In the autumn of 1908, she abandoned the idea of pursuing a career as an artist saying that “she could never distinguish herself as an artist within the mimetic tradition which had formed the basis of her art training”.  She took a job in Chicago as a commercial artist. She did not paint for four years, and said that the smell of turpentine made her sick.

Thankfully in 1912, she met Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged artists to express themselves more freely, and she started to teach art in public schools and colleges. And whilst she was teaching, she started to paint in watercolours and draw in charcoal.

Few of her paintings would be called anything other than inspired.  They are full, absolutely full, of symbolic meaning and beautiful with it. They are sensual, richly coloured, flowing.   She made large-format paintings of enlarged blossoms, presenting them close up as if seen through a magnifying lens, but also added subjects of an entirely symbolic meaning [flowers are of course symbolic, but her paintings of these are relatively realistic].


Alfred Stieglitz

In April 1916, ten of her drawings were exhibited at the 291 gallery.  Gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz organized O'Keeffe's first solo show at 291 in April 1917 which included oil paintings and watercolours.  In 1924, she painted her first large-scale flower painting Petunia, No. 2, which was first exhibited in 1925.

Stieglitz and O'Keeffe corresponded frequently beginning in 1916, and in June 1918, she accepted Stieglitz's invitation to move to New York to devote all of her time to her work. The two were deeply in love, and shortly after her arrival, they began living together, even though the then-married Stieglitz was 23 years her senior. That year Stieglitz first took O'Keeffe to his family home at the village of Lake George in New York's Adirondack Mountains, and they spent part of every year there until 1929, when O'Keeffe spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico. In 1924, Stieglitz's divorce was finally approved by a judge, and within four months he and O'Keeffe married.

Stieglitz started photographing her in 1917. By 1937, when he retired from photography, he had made more than 350 portraits of her. Many of these photos are described as ‘erotic’, many showed her nude.  So although O’Keefe may have inherited her abilities, the driving force for her work looks as though it was love and making love.

Her earlier work had been mostly abstract, but later works such as Black Iris III (1926) accurately depicted the center of an iris. There have been people who have tried to place Freudian interpretations on her art, but that is principally because they do not understand the symbolism.  The symbols she used were actually deeply spiritual.

"It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things."

What is perhaps interesting is that O’Keeffe did not live in poverty or suffer as many artists did.  Her driving inspiration appears to have been genes and making love, a rather happy combination!

It helped having a gallery owner as a husband.  In 1928, Stieglitz attempted to sell six of her calla lily paintings for US$25,000, which was the largest sum ever asked for a group of paintings by a living American artist. The sale fell through, but Stieglitz's promotion of the potential sale drew extensive media attention.

Her relationship with her husband however was stormy.  Two serious breast operations in 1927, compounded by tensions between her and Stieglitz led her to try to become more independent of him

His power to destroy was as destructive as his power to build – the extremes went together.  I have experienced both and survived, but I think I only crossed him when I had to – to survive

In 1932, partly due to the pressure of  commercial project that went wrong, she had a nervous breakdown which lasted on and off for over a year.  She did not start painting again until 1934.

What I find fascinating about this was that it appeared to be like a rebirth experience for her.  Before the breakdown, she had been inspired by ‘overload’ techniques – love and high emotion.  After this she was quite definitely on the spiritual path.  For those who doubt this consider that one of the most influential books in her life had been Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

In 1938,  the advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son approached O'Keeffe, then aged 51,  about creating two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company.  She arrived in Honolulu February 8, 1939, and spent nine weeks in Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the island of Hawaii. By far the most productive and vivid period was on Maui, where she was given complete freedom to explore and paint. She painted flowers, landscapes, “and traditional Hawaiian fishhooks”! Back in New York, O’Keeffe completed a series of 20 sensual, verdant paintings. However, she did not paint the requested pineapple, until after the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sent a plant to her New York studio.

O'Keeffe also gained a great deal of inspiration from New Mexico and Taos where she had a studio.  Between 1929 and 1949, O'Keeffe spent part of nearly every year working there. She collected rocks and bones from the desert floor and made them and the distinctive architectural and landscape forms of the area subjects in her work. She also went on several camping trips with friends, visiting important sites in the Southwest, and in 1961, she and others, went on a rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Late in 1932, O'Keeffe suffered another nervous breakdown that was brought on, in part, because she was unable to complete a Radio City Music Hall mural project that had fallen behind schedule. She was hospitalized in early 1933 and did not paint again until January 1934. In the spring of 1933 and 1934, O'Keeffe recuperated in Bermuda, and she returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934. In August of that year, she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu, and decided immediately to live there; in 1940, she purchased a house on the ranch property. The varicolored cliffs of Ghost Ranch inspired some of her most famous landscapes. Among guests to visit her at the ranch over the years were Charles and Anne Lindbergh, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, poet Allen Ginsberg, and photographer Ansel Adams.

"Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the 'Faraway'."


O'Keeffe with Juan Hamilton

Shortly after O'Keeffe arrived for the summer in New Mexico in 1946, Stieglitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis. She immediately flew to New York to be with him. He died on July 13, 1946.

She moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949. After this her paintings changed.  No less inspired, just more symbolic.  For example in 1958 she painted  Ladder to the Moon.

In 1972, O'Keeffe's eyesight was compromised by macular degeneration, leading to the loss of central vision and leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting in 1972, but continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984.  Juan Hamilton, a young potter, appeared at her ranch house in 1973 looking for work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full-time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business manager until her death.

O'Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered to the wind at the top of Pedernal Mountain, over her beloved "faraway".

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