Georgia Totto O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American artist who was a major figure in the American art world from the 1920’s on. O’Keeffe used varying colours and crisply contoured forms, often creating power abstracts out of her subject matter. At a time when European art often influenced American, O’Keeffe brought to Europe her unique brand of American art.
O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887 to dairy farmer parents, the second of seven children. O’Keeffe and her sisters were made to take art classes in their youth by their mother, and O’Keeffe did so well that her parents suggested art school. Georgia’s mother, Ida, was educated herself and it became a family tradition for the O’Keeffe women to be educated. As a testament to Ida O’Keeffe’s influence, all but one of her daughters became professionals. O’Keeffe attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905 and the Art Students League in 1907, but became discouraged with her art and moved to Amarillo, Texas to become an art teacher at an elementary school. She regained inspiration after attending a summer school class at the University of Virginia after being introduced to Arthur Wesley Dow’s innovative ideas on art. Dow’s teachings and techniques greatly influenced O’Keeffe and she remained at the university for several years as a teaching assistant.
In 1916, photographer and art critic Alfred Stieglitz was introduced to some of O’Keeffe’s drawings at his 291 gallery. Although O’Keeffe had visited the gallery in 1908, she had never met Stieglitz, but held him in high regard. In April of that year Stieglitz hung ten drawings at 291 without O’Keeffe’s knowledge or consent, but after coming to New York and confronting Stieglitz she allowed the pictures to remain. Stieglitz allowed O’Keeffe to use his niece’s empty apartment while she stayed in New York and they soon fell in love. Stieglitz left his wife and married O’Keeffe after his divorce in 1924. An avid artist himself, Stieglitz took more than 300 photographic portraits of O’Keeffe between 1918 to 1937. Pictures of O’Keeffe, some of them nudes, were prominently featured in a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1921, creating an instant sensation and drawing attention to O’Keeffe and her work.
O’Keeffe befriended many early American modernists that she met through Stieglitz and her style began to evolve as her circle of friends expanded. In New York, O’Keeffe shifted away from watercolours and began to work primarily in oils. The large-scale interpretations of natural forms at a very close range were a series she began in the mid-1920’s. By this time, O’Keeffe had become one of America’s most well-known and important artists. Her work on flowers evoked the feeling of representing the intimate female form, but O’Keeffe maintained that she was not painting vaginal imagery, although her work would later become iconic in feminist circles. By 1928, O’Keeffe was searching for new inspiration and travelled the following year to Taos, New Mexico. She spent part of every year in New Mexico until moving there permanently in 1949. O’Keeffe fell behind in an exhibition and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1932; she did not resume painting until 1934.
O’Keeffe purchased two properties in New Mexico in her later life and made the state her home after Stieglitz passed away in 1946. In the west, O’Keeffe’s paintings focused on elements distinctive to the area’s land and architecture. One of her most famous paintings, Summer Days, features a cattle skull strewn with flowers set against a desert background. Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s O’Keeffe’s popularity continued to rise, she received many honours and accolades during her lifetime. O’Keeffe became the first woman to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, and the Whitney Museum of American Art established a catalogue of her work in the mid-1940’s. She received in 1977 the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts in 1985. O’Keeffe passed away in 1986 at the age of 98, and had her ashes scattered over the desert hills she loved so dearly.