On Georgia O’Keeffe: The Mother of American Modernism
Georgia O’Keeffe. Alfred Stieglitz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Georgia O’Keeffe is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential modernist artists of the 20th century. In terms of her stature and achievements in the art world, she is up there with the greats. Her innovative and groundbreaking style led her to be dubbed the Mother of American Modernism.
So who was this amazing artist who captured the imagination and attention of the world at a time when most female artists were ignored or dismissed in spite of their achievements in the artistic field? Who was this lonely, introverted figure who became a role model for feminists and even inspired the feminist art movement in the U.S.?
Well, allow me to quench your curiosity. Allow me to take over. It’s the least I can do for you.
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on 15th November 1887 in the town of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to dairy farmers Ida and Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe. She was the second child out of seven children.
It is said that she knew she wanted to become an artist by the age of 10 itself, fairly early for anyone to choose a career path for the rest of their lives. But I guess when you know it you just know it. Georgia O’Keeffe clearly knew it.
She soon began receiving art lessons from a local watercolorist named Sara Mann, along with her sisters Anita and Ida.
After attending the local Town Hall School in Sun Prairie, Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 14, began attending high school as a boarder at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin in 1901. Barely a year after she had enrolled, the family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where her father started a business making rusticated cast concrete blocks. But she stayed behind in Wisconsin to complete the school year, staying with her aunt. The following year, she joined her family in Virginia.
Georgia O’Keeffe completed her high school at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia in 1905, aged 18. It was now that she began focusing solely on art and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study it.
At the institute, she studied under the Dutch-American artist and teacher John Henry Vanderpoel and was so good that she frequently topped her class. Sadly, a serious bout of typhoid kept her away from her studies for almost a year.
Upon recovering, she began attending the Art Students League of New York. Here she studied under illustrious artists such as Francis Luis Mora, William Merritt Chase, and Kenyon Cox. She also began visiting art galleries in New York, including 291, which was co-founded by American photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who would, years later, go on to become her husband. 291 promoted the work of avant-garde artists and photographers from Europe and the US.
Georgia O’Keeffe continued to do well in art school, even winning a still-life prize for her oil painting titled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, and a scholarship to attend the school’s outdoor summer school in the village of Lake George.
But the same year she was awarded the scholarship, she underwent a sudden shift in her interests and future plans. Her mother fell seriously ill with tuberculosis and her father went bankrupt. Due to these personal and financial issues, she was unable to continue with her studies. Her interest in an artistic career waned during this period.
Georgia O’Keeffe took up a job in Chicago as a commercial artist and would go on to work there for the next two years before leaving for Virginia to be with her family.
By 1911, she began teaching art in her former school Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia. The following year, she enrolled in a summer class under artist Alon Bement at the University of Virginia.
It was under Bement’s guidance that Georgia O’Keeffe became enthusiastic about art again. Under his tutelage, she studied the innovative ideas of artist Arthur Wesley Dow and began experimenting with abstract compositions, soon developing a personal style that steered away from realism.
In 1914, she took a class with Dow at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Dow’s ideas and principles played a major role in her development as an artist.
In late 1915, while she taught at Columbia College in South Carolina, she completed a series of innovative and radical charcoal abstractions based on her personal feelings. Early the following year, when she was teaching down in New York, she sent the drawings to a friend, who took them to Alfred Steiglitz.
Stieglitz was greatly impressed with the charcoal drawings, calling them the purest, finest, and sincerest things that had entered his studio in a long while. In April of that year, he exhibited ten of her drawings at 291.
The following year, Georgia O’Keeffe was appointed chair of the art department at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, Texas. While there, she went on long walks, admiring and marveling at the views and scenery surrounding her. The geography of the place inspired her to paint a series of watercolor paintings, which included multiple vibrant paintings of the Palo Duro Canyon.
Here she enjoyed the sunrise and sunset, painting them with watercolors while trying to capture her true feelings when she saw them. She expressed her sensations and feelings freely without sketching out a design before painting. It was during this period that she developed a fondness for intense nocturnal colors.
The views and feelings that inspired her to create those paintings were perfectly captured in her 1917 work Light Coming on the Plains No. I. She would go on to paint two other well-known paintings on the same theme, Light Coming on the Plains No. II and Light Coming on the Plains No. III.
These three works, though simple-looking, were unique for the time. They show her growing inclination toward pure abstraction and are an early example of the American modernist landscape. Some critics even regard them as radical works of art.
By 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe had moved to New York to stay at a residence arranged for her by Steiglitz. Steiglitz even provided her with financial support and began promoting her work. He soon persuaded her to stop painting with watercolors as it was associated with amateur women artists.
The pair became close to each other while Steiglitz promoted her work. Through him, she met other American modernist artists such as John Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, etc.
Around this time, Georgia O’Keeffe began painting simplified images of natural things flowers, leaves, rocks, etc. She would become famous for her depictions of flowers and would go on to create over 200 flower paintings, many of which included large-scale depictions of flowers as if seen through a magnifying lens. Well-known examples of such works include the Red Canna paintings, Oriental Poppies, Black Iris, etc. These paintings inspired a sense of awe and emotional intensity within observers.
Her flower paintings were so evocative and sensuous that many critics often went out of their way to find sexual metaphors in them. However, she rejected such interpretations by saying that they were just paintings of flowers and nothing more.
In the mid-1920s, Steiglitz organized several exhibitions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works. By the late 1920s, her works began selling at a higher price after Steiglitz reported that six of her paintings had been sold to an anonymous buyer in France for $25,000. Although there is no evidence of such a transaction taking place (not at least the way Steiglitz had reported it), the publicity it garnered served to increase the value of her paintings.
It was during this period that Georgia O’Keeffe began painting the skyscrapers of New York City after moving into a 30th-floor apartment at the Shelton Hotel.
This new obsession would lead to the creation of one of her most notable works, Radiator Building – Night, New York. However, her source of inspiration would soon change when she would visit Taos in New Mexico in 1929, along with her friend and fellow artist Rebecca Strand.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Rebecca took up accommodation with art patron Mabel Luhan, who also provided them with studios to work in.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s room offered her a perfect view of the Taos Mountains. These mountains became her new inspiration and muse. She frequently explored the mountains and deserts of the surrounding region by going on pack trips.
She visited the ranch of English novelist D.H. Lawrence in Taos, which inspired her famous painting The Lawrence Tree, a painting of a large ponderosa pine tree that was on the ranch. She also visited the historical and architecturally-unique San Francisco de Asis Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos and made several paintings of it.
From this visit onward, New Mexico became a place she frequently visited to paint. She liked the loneliness and beautiful landscape of the place.
But things took a turn for the worse in the early 1930s after Georgia O’Keeffe learned of Steiglitz’s affair with another artist and photographer. The knowledge of his continuing affair completely broke her down, resulting in her suffering from nervous breakdowns. She was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Due to her frequent breakdowns, she took a sabbatical from painting for a couple of years in the mid-1930s. However, in 1936, she would create one of her most well-known works, Summer Days, depicting a desert scene with a deer skull with vibrant wildflowers.
By the late 1930s, her career seemed to be stalling. Critics did not praise her paintings like before, referring to her desert paintings as a kind of mass production. Fortunately for her, she soon got an opportunity that would provide her with renewed inspiration.
This opportunity came in 1938 in the form of an offer by an ad agency to create two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company to use in their advertising. Georgia O’Keeffe accepted the offer and traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, spending 9 weeks in Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the island of Hawaii.
Her most productive visit was to Maui, where she was given the freedom to explore the island and paint. She painted landscapes, flowers, and traditional Hawaiian fishhooks.
Arriving back in New York, she went on to complete a series of 20 sensual, verdant paintings.
By this time, Georgia O’Keeffe was already an established and widely-known artist. Her paintings were being sold for a substantial price and her impact on American modern art had been praised and recognized.
In the 1940s, her retrospectives were held at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Museum of Modern Art, where she became the first woman artist to have a retrospective.
In the mid-1940s, the Whitney Museum of American Art began to create the first catalog of her work. In 1970, the museum would go on to arrange the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition.
Moving to Ghost Ranch, close to the village of Abiquiu in New Mexico, the surrounding landscape inspired several of her paintings. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, Georgia O’Keeffe made New Mexico her permanent home. The lifestyle and geography of Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch would continue to inspire her works for years to come.
At the ranch, guests such as singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, aviator Charles Lindbergh, photographer Ansel Adams, and poet Allen Ginsberg would come and visit her.
By the early 1970s, Georgia O’Keeffe had lost much of her eyesight due to macular degeneration (a medical condition that may result in blurred or no vision in the center of the visual field). Due to this, she only had her peripheral vision, forcing her to stop oil painting without assistance.
Her live-in assistant and caretaker helped her in writing her autobiography titled, Georgia O’Keeffe, which was published in 1976 and became a bestseller. During this period, in spite of her failing eyesight, she managed to produce a series of watercolor paintings. But her painting output had drastically decreased by then, eventually coming to a complete halt. Nevertheless, she would continue to work with charcoal and pencil until a couple of years before her death.
By the early 1980s, she had become increasingly frail and weak and her eyesight had almost completely gone. In 1984, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she would die two years later on 6th March, at the age of 98. According to her wishes, her body was cremated and the ashes were scattered on the land around Ghost Ranch.
Georgia O’Keeffe had lived a long and eventful life. She had established herself as a great pioneering artist who displayed uniqueness and audacity in her work, thereby transforming and spearheading the American Modernist Movement.
She had explored and mastered pure abstraction like few other artists of the time had, developing her own unique and radical style in the process. Outside of the artistic field, she managed to achieve many other milestones as a woman at a time when it was difficult for women to do so.
She became the highest-paid American woman artist and one of the highest-paid artists in general, at a time when women artists did not get the recognition they deserved. She was revered and admired in the art world by men and women artists alike, all of whom regarded her as a master of her craft, a contemporary legend of sorts.
Her independent spirit and her achievements made her an icon and role model for feminists both inside and outside of the art world. Perhaps, American artist and pioneer of the feminist art movement Mary Beth Edelson paid Georgia O’Keeffe the greatest tribute in her famous collage Some Living American Women Artists, wherein Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper was appropriated and the heads of notable women artists were collaged over the heads of Christ and his apostles. In the collage, Christ’s head was replaced with that of Georgia O’Keeffe’s, portraying her as the central figure in the feminist art movement.
Another feminist artist Judy Chicago gave Georgia O’Keeffe an important place in her installation artwork The Dinner Party to honor what many feminist artists consider a groundbreaking introduction of sensual and feminist imagery in her works of art. Feminists celebrated her as the originator of female iconography or feminist art.
But in spite of being considered a symbol of the feminist art movement, Georgia O’Keeffe rejected being typecasted in such a manner and refused to join the feminist art movement or take part in any project in which only women could take part. For her, art was neutral and genderless. She thought of herself as just an artist and hated being referred to as a woman artist or female artist.
She also refused to be called a revolutionary feminist, stating that femaleness was irrelevant in art and had nothing to do with art-making or accomplishment.
Throughout her lifetime and even after her death, Georgia O’Keeffe was awarded several honors and prizes. She received honorary degrees from colleges and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1977, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. A year before her death, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan.
In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1996, the US Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp in her honor. In 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was established in Santa Fe, and her home and studio in Abiquiu were declared a National Historic Landmark the following year.
Fossils have been named in her honor and movies have been made based on her life.
In 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. I sold for a whopping $44.4 million, more than thrice the previous world auction record for any female artist, making it the highest price paid for a painting by a female artist.
The life that she led and her achievements in the artistic field, lead me to firmly believe that Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the greatest artists of all time. And I am sure you agree that labeling her as just a great ‘female artist’ would be a grave injustice to her life and work.