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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)

For seven decades, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) was a major figure in American art. Remarkably, she remained independent from shifting art trends and stayed true to her own vision, which was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in nature. With exceptionally keen powers of observation and great finesse with a paintbrush, she recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light that enlivened her paintings and attracted a wide audience. Her primary subjects were landscapes, flowers, and bones, explored in series over several years and even decades. The images were drawn from her life experience and related either generally or specifically to places where she lived.

Born in 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe received art training at the Art Institute of Chicago school (1905), the Art Students League of New York (1907–8), the University of Virginia (1912), and Columbia University’s Teachers College, New York (1914–16). She became an art teacher and taught in various elementary schools, high schools, and colleges in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina from 1911 to 1918. During this period, she produced a remarkable series of charcoal drawings that led her art—and her career—in a new direction. These daring works of 1915–16 (50.236.2) orchestrated line, shape, and tone into abstract compositions. It was through these drawings that O’Keeffe came to the attention of the prominent photographer and New York gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz in January 1916. After supposedly exclaiming, “At last, a woman on paper!” he exhibited her drawings at the 291 gallery, where the works of many avant-garde European and American artists and photographers were introduced to the American public.

With his encouragement and promise of financial support, O’Keeffe abandoned teaching and arrived in New York in June 1918, to begin a career as an artist. From then until his death in 1946, Stieglitz vigorously promoted her work in twenty-two solo exhibitions and numerous group installations. The two lived together almost immediately, and were married in 1924. The ups and downs of their personal and professional relationship were recorded in Stieglitz’s celebrated photographs of O’Keeffe (1997.61.12), taken over the course of twenty years (1917–37). As a new member of the Stieglitz circle, she associated with some of America’s most distinguished early modernists—painters such as Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth, and photographers such as Paul Strand and Edward J. Steichen, as well as influential art critics and writers. Their discussions about art, and the example of their work, both validated and influenced O’Keeffe’s own work.

During the 1920s, O’Keeffe painted a series of architectural pictures that dramatically depict the soaring skyscrapers and aerial views of New York City. But most often, she painted landscapes and botanical studies that were inspired by annual trips to the Stieglitz family summer home in Lake George, New York. In her magnified close-ups of flowers (69.278.1), begun in 1924, O’Keeffe brings the viewer right into the picture. Enlarging the tiniest petals to fill an entire 30 x 40 inch canvas emphasized their shapes and lines and made them appear abstract, when in fact they were based on her observations of nature. Such daring compositions helped establish O’Keeffe’s reputation as an innovative modernist.

Toward the end of the decade, the strains of dealing with the New York art world, her growing boredom with Lake George, and her deteriorating relationship with Stieglitz took their toll on her physical and emotional health. In response, she made her first extended trip to New Mexico in 1929. It was a visit that had a lasting impact on her life, and an immediate effect on her work. Over the next twenty years, from 1929 to 1949, she made almost annual trips to New Mexico, staying up to six months there, painting in relative solitude, then returning to New York each winter to exhibit the new work at Stieglitz’s gallery. This pattern continued until she moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949.

There, O’Keeffe found new subjects to paint in the sun-bleached animal bones and the rugged mountains that dominate the terrain. Two of her earliest and most celebrated Southwestern paintings—Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (52.203) and Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (Art Institute of Chicago) from 1931—exquisitely reproduce a skull’s weathered surfaces, jagged edges, and irregular openings. Rather than signifying death, O’Keeffe said that the bones symbolized the eternal beauty of the desert. Later, she painted fanciful canvases that combined skeletal objects and landscape imagery in the same composition (59.204.2). The results were provocative and unsettling, and the odd juxtapositions and discrepancies in size and scale led some to call these works surreal. Between 1943 and 1945, she also explored another variation on the bone theme in her large series of Pelvis pictures, which focused on the contrasts between convex and concave surfaces, and solid and open spaces (61.565.36).

Although the desert bones of New Mexico had initially sparked O’Keeffe’s imagination, it was the region’s majestic landscape, with its unusual geological formations, vivid colors, clarity of light, and exotic vegetation, that held her attention for more than four decades. Often she painted the rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up, just as she had done with her flower subjects. One of her favorite settings was a site she nicknamed the “Black Place” (59.204.1), which she interpreted both panoramically and in tight views emphasizing the ragged juncture of two hills.

O’Keeffe eventually owned two homes north of Santa Fe—the first, her summer retreat at Ghost Ranch, was nestled beneath 700-foot cliffs and looked out to the flat-topped Pedernal in the distance, while the second, used as her winter residence, was in the small town of Abiquiú. While both locales provided a wealth of imagery for her paintings, one feature of the Abiquiú house—the large walled patio with its black door—was particularly inspirational. In more than thirty pictures between 1946 and 1960 (Black Door with Red, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia), she reinvented the patio into an abstract arrangement of geometric shapes.

From the 1950s into the 1970s, O’Keeffe traveled widely around the world, making trips to the Far East, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Flying in airplanes inspired her last two major series—aerial views of rivers (It Was Blue and Green, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and expansive paintings of the sky viewed from just above the clouds (Sky Above Clouds IV, Art Institute of Chicago). In both series, as well as in the later patio door pictures, O’Keeffe increased the size of her canvases, sometimes to mural proportions, reflecting perhaps her newly expanded view of the world. The seven works in her Sky Above Clouds series (1962–65) are the most dramatic of her later years. When in 1965 she successfully translated this motif to a monumental canvas measuring 24 feet in length (with the help of assistants), it was an enormous challenge and a special feat for an artist nearing eighty years of age.

The last two decades of the artist’s life were relatively unproductive as ill health and blindness hindered her ability to work. When she died in 1986 at age ninety-eight, her ashes were scattered over the New Mexico landscape she had loved for more than half a century. Her rich legacy of some 900 paintings has continued to attract subsequent generations of artists and art lovers who derive inspiration from these very American images.