Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O’Keeffe was a member of the circle of avant-garde artists and a pioneer of American Modernism. She was born in 1887, the second of seven children. Her parents were successful farmers in the middle western state of Wisconsin. Georgia's mother had cultural interests. She made sure that Georgia and her sisters studied art, in addition to their usual school subjects. By the time Georgia was sixteen, the O'Keeffe family had moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. After Georgia finished school, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. In 1907, O’Keeffe began a year at the Art Students League in New York City. Then, in 1908, Georgia O'Keeffe left the world of fine art. She moved back to Chicago and worked in the advertising business. She drew pictures of products to be sold. Her parents had been struggling financially for some time in Virginia. Later, her mother became sick with tuberculosis. Some art historians suspect these were the main reasons Georgia O’Keeffe spent four years in business instead of continuing her studies. In 1912, O'Keeffe returned to art school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
In 1915, Georgia O'Keeffe decided that much of what she had been taught in art school was of little value. She wrote that she had been taught to work like others. She decided then that she would not spend her life doing what had already been done. Georgia O'Keeffe began to search for her own style. She used only charcoal. In 1908 Georgia O'Keeffe had met the famous art critic and photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his New York City gallery. He became a major force behind shows of Georgia O'Keeffe's work for the next 25 years. Stieglitz became O'Keeffe's strongest supporte and seven years later in 1924 they got married, beginning one of history's great creative partnerships. Stieglitz was twenty-four years older than his new wife. Some of his' best work was of O'Keeffe, his muse, and in turn Stieglitz promoted and encouraged her art throughout his life. The relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz was not an easy one. O’Keeffe once said that to her “he was much more wonderful in his work than as a human being.” But, she also said she loved him for what seemed “clear and bright and wonderful.” The two remained married until his death in 1946.
Georgia O'Keeffe had a long love relationship with the southwestern part of the United States. The desert environment was the subject of many of her paintings. O'Keeffe had moved to Texas when she was 25 to take a two-year position as supervisor of art in the public schools of Amarillo, Texas. In 1930, Georgia O'Keeffe began spending most of her summers in New Mexico. She called it “the faraway.”
Georgia O'Keeffe started painting big pictures of desert flowers and the high rocky hills. She also began to paint pictures of the bones she found during walks near her summer home. Most of her paintings share the qualities of largeness of subject and richness of color. She often spoke of a special need to paint her subjects larger than they are in life. She seemed to want to force people to see more deeply into objects such as flowers. She tried to show the different shapes and colors within a single flower. O'Keeffe was angered by the criticism of her work over the years. She rejected critics' claims that there was deep sexual meaning in her paintings of flowers. She said that people linked their own experience of a flower to her paintings. She suggested that critics wrote about her flower paintings as if they knew what she was seeing and thinking but in reality they did not know, she said. She argued that what others think of the artist's work is not important. And once she wrote to a friend, "... I'll do as I please."
In 1940 Georgia O’Keeffe bought her first house in New Mexico. After Alfred Stieglitz died, she moved to “the faraway’” permanently and lived in New Mexico for the rest of her life. In the early 1970s, O’Keeffe began losing her sight because of an eye disease. She stopped working with oil paints, but continued to do watercolor paintings. In 1973, a young potter, Juan Hamilton, stopped by her ranch looking for work. She hired him first but soon after he became an assistant and the closest friend. In the early 1980's Georgia’s O’Keeffe’s health failed severely. She died in 1986 at the age of 98.
Georgia O'Keeffe was an American original, living as she chose, painting what she wanted. It is said that her art is uniquely American, shining with a bright modernism and energy. The lyrical flowers, the New Mexico-inspired vistas of light and shape, the hard-edged, energetic urban landscapes all somehow could only have been painted by an American woman. O'Keeffe painted all her days, committed as always to what she loved: "Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are."