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Georgia O’Keeffe: ‘Mother of American Modernism’

The mystique of Georgia O’Keeffe’s exceptional life is as intriguing as her stunningly bold abstract paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe is considered to be one of the
Georgia O'Keeffe
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“Colours and line and shape seem for me a more definite statement than words.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a major figure in American art who, remarkably, maintained her independence from shifting artistic trends, staying firmly rooted in the movement of American Modernism. She painted prolifically, and almost exclusively, the flowers, animal bones, and landscapes around her studios in Lake George, New York, and New Mexico, and these subjects became her signature images. She remained true to her own unique artistic vision and created a highly individual style of painting, which synthesized the formal language of modern European abstraction and the subjects of traditional American pictorialism.

The mystique of Georgia O’Keeffe’s exceptional life is as intriguing as her stunningly bold abstract paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe is considered to be one of the main founders of modern art at the beginning of the 20th century, and is often referred to as the ‘Mother of American Modernism’. Although O’Keeffe’s career was primarily supported by the influential Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and a well-known photographer, she prioritized her independence and originality, establishing herself as a separate entity. Georgia O’Keeffe’s work was a testament to the importance of female artists, in a world dominated by male painters. 

Cebolla Church painting by Georgia O'Keeffe
Cebolla Church (1945)

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her large abstract paintings inspired by nature. Her themes included vibrant closeups of flowers, sun bleached animal skulls and bones, the natural and architectural landscapes of New Mexico, and cityscapes of New York City. She established the fact that indigenous American landscapes are just as significant as man-made cities, with her paintings of the stark and stunning landscapes of New Mexico, where she lived and worked for a significant period of her artistic career and life. 

Birth and Early Life

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on the 15th of November 1887. The second of seven children, she grew up on a wheat farm in Wisconsin. O’Keeffe’s father, Calixtus O’Keeffe, was Irish, and her mother, Ida Totto, was of Dutch and Hungarian descent. Georgia O’Keeffe was named after her Hungarian grandfather, George Totto. By the time she graduated from high school, she was well on her way to becoming a professional artist.

O’Keeffe studied and ranked at the top of her class at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (1905-1906). In 1907, she joined the Art Students League in New York, where she studied in the classes of William Meritt Chase and Kenyon Cox. In 1908 O’Keeffe won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot

painting by Georgia O'Keeffe
Dead Rabbit with the Copper Pot (1908)

Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George in New York. While in the city, O’Keeffe visited galleries co-owned by her future husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. The gallery 291 promoted the work of avant-garde artists from the United States and Europe as well as prominent photographers and she had seen her first Matisses and Picassos there.

She took a summer art class in 1912 at the University of Virginia from Alon Bement, who was a Columbia University Teachers College faculty member. Under Bement, she learned about the innovative ideas of Arthur Welsley Dow, a colleague of her instructor. Dow’s approach was influenced by principles of Japanese art regarding design and composition. O’Keeffe began to experiment with abstract compositions and developed a personal style that veered away from realism. From 1912 to 1914, she taught art in the public schools in Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, and was a teaching assistant to Bement during the summers. She took classes at the University of Virginia for two more summers. Her studies at the University of Virginia, based upon Dow’s principles, were pivotal in O’Keeffe’s development as an artist. Through her exploration and growth as an artist, she helped to establish the movement named American Modernism.

In 1915, O’Keeffe started teaching at Columbia College in Columbia, where she worked on a body of charcoal drawings that were purely abstract. As she herself commented about this period, “this was one of the best times in my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing – no one interested – no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was along and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself.” 

Drawings by Georgia O'Keeffe
Drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe

She mailed her drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer who promptly, without permission, showed them to Stieglitz, who looked at them and made his famous remark “Finally, a woman on paper.” He kept them for several months, and then exhibited them the following spring, along with the works of Charles Duncan and René Lafferty. Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the first American artists to have created a body of purely abstract work, so when Stieglitz saw her portfolio, he decided to include ten of her drawings in a group show in 1916. O’Keeffe was furious when she realised that her drawings had been made public, but Stieglitz convinced her to allow them to be shown. In April 1917, Stieglitz sponsored Georgia O’Keeffe’s first solo show in his gallery –  Gallery 291.

O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and New York City

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz started corresponding after he first saw her work. In 1918, a year after her first solo show, O’Keeffe moved to New York into an apartment that Stieglitz found for her. Stieglitz supported O’Keeffe financially so that she would be able to focus on developing her work. They got married and began living together in New York soon after.

Also read: The Impressionist Movement

O’Keeffe was also the subject of Stieglitz’s art. Contrary to the times, Stieglitz promoted his photography as an art form. Even more controversial were the images of O’Keeffe that he shot and exhibited. Initially these photographs – nudes, both sensual and sexual often cropped to create abstract images – were not well received by the public, and hurt O’Keeffe’s image in the art world. But they prompted her to begin cropping her own paintings of flowers, creating large canvasses of extreme closeups in brilliant colours. 

flowers by Georgia O'Keefe
Extreme closeups of flowers

When O’Keeffe exhibited these paintings for the first time, in a solo show at the Anderson Galleries in 1923, they were seen by viewers and critics in the same light as Stieglitz’s photographs of her. The result was an overly Freudian analysis of her new work, described as being extremely sexual. At the time, O’Keeffe (who was a member of one of the National Woman’s Party), vehemently denied the sexual connotations imposed upon her work by the public and attested that her work was simply inspired by nature and abstraction. O’Keeffe’s flower paintings have often been called erotic, which is not exactly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced. It would be surprising if an artist with her passion for the transcendent did not make use of erotically charged imagery. Reducing her flowers to symbols of female sexuality is however, a trivializing mistake, for the sexual particulars matter less in art with the aspiration that the vivid and more universal sensation of a joyful release into another world beyond the usual perception.

Black Iris & Light iris by Georgia O Keeffe
O’Keeffe painted her flowers in brilliant colours

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz started working on reshaping her public image by arranging further exhibitions, interviews, and new photographs that posed her in a different light. By the mid-1920s, after an initial period of experimentation with various media, techniques, and imagery, O’Keeffe had already developed the personal style of painting that would characterize her mature work. During the 1930s she added an established repertory of colour, forms, and themes that reflected the influence of her visits to New Mexico. For the most part, her work of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s relied on those images already present in her art by the mid-1940s.

New Mexico and Her Later Career

Georgia O’Keeffe’s art career experienced exceptional growth in New York, but by the end of the 20th century, she felt uninspired by city life. Nor did the yearly visits to the lush landscape of Lake George inspire her anymore. O’Keeffe felt torn between her commitment towards her husband and her need for a change in environment. In 1929, however, she decided to spend the summer at an artist residency in New Mexico, a space that she visited briefly in 1917 and that always pulled her in. Here she rediscovered her love for vast landscapes with large open skies, similar to that of her childhood.

O’Keeffe was also inspired by the unique architecture of the place and by the local Navajo culture. She returned here for many years to spend summers in New Mexico. O’Keeffe especially enjoyed working in Ghost Ranch, located north of Abiquiú, and in 1940 she bought a house there. In 1945, she bought a second house in Abiquiú. In 1946, Stieglitz passed away at the age of 82 and she moved permanently to New Mexico.

Nature Forms Georgia O'Keeffe
Landscapes of New Mexico

O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings coincided with a growing interest in regional scenes by American Modernists seeking a distinctive view of the nation. In the 1950s, O’Keeffe began to travel internationally. She painted and sketched works that evoke the spectacular places she visited, including the mountain peaks of Peru and Japan’s Mount Fuji. At the age of seventy-three, she took on a new subject: aerial views of clouds and sky.

Suffering from macular degeneration and failing vision, O’Keeffe painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. However, O’Keeffe’s will to create did not diminish with her eyesight. In 1977, at age ninety, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” Late in life, and almost blind, she enlisted the help of several assistants to enable her to continue creating art. In these works, she drew on favourite motifs from memory and her vivid imagination. Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.

The vision of Georgia O’Keeffe, which evolved during the first twenty years of her career, continued to inform her later work and was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in the subjects she painted. With exceptionally keen powers of observation and great finesse with a paintbrush, she recorded subtle nuances of colour, shape, and light. Subjects such as landscapes, flowers, and bones were explored in series, or more accurately, in a series of series. Generally, she tested the pictorial possibilities of each subject in a sequence of three or four pictures produced in succession during a single year. But sometimes a series extended over several years, or even decades, and resulted in as many as a dozen variations.

Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe
New Mexico by O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe’s interest in the scale of transcendence led her to violate certain boundaries. Not only did she make the large small and the small large, but she took serious chances with colour, sometimes upsetting conventions of visual harmony in order to startle the eye into new kinds of viewing experiences. She was not afraid of the large, symbolic reverberation; her bones and bleached animal skulls often seem strangely alive as though they are the flowers of the desert. Through her repeated reworkings of familiar themes she produced an enormous body of work that was intensely focused and unusually coherent.

The subjects O’Keeffe painted were taken from life and related either generally or specifically to the places where she had been. Through her art she explored the minute details of a setting or an object’s physical appearance and thereby came to know it even better. Often her pictures convey a highly subjective impression of an image, although it is depicted in a straightforward and realistic manner. Such subjective interpretations were frequently coloured by important events in the artist’s personal and professional life. Their impact on her work was often unconscious, as the artist acknowledged late in life.

Images used in this article are from the public domain.

Anjana Dutt is a writer, graphic designer, published poet, pianist, soprano, film maker, interior designer, photographer, single mom…you are as likely to find Anjana shooting her beloved Labrador, as you are to see her writing an article or designing a product. She spent 25 years in advertising, at Ogilvy and later J Walter Thompson. She rose to the position of Senior Creative Director was in charge of the films division in Calcutta, with several awards under her belt. As a columnist, she contributed articles fortnightly for three years titled ‘Elements of Style’ to The Telegraph newspaper. Launching herself anew as a Creative Consultant, her choice of independent projects have been as varied as her eclectic taste in music.

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