Georgia O’Keeffe Painted America from New York to New Mexico
Perhaps no other artist deserves the title of American Artist more than Georgia O’Keeffe.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, O’Keeffe wasn’t inspired by French or Italian artists. She didn’t make the typical artist’s pilgrimage to the great cities of European art until later in life. She steadfastly separated herself from international art trends of her time, including Cubism. Instead, she was inspired by the natural and man-built beauty of North America. She was inspired by flowers, lakes, deserts, big skies, sky-scrapers, and canyons.
Where Did Georgia O’Keeffe Live?
Georgia O’Keeffe lived in many states in the United States. She was born in Wisconsin, and in her early years lived for short periods in Illinois, Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina. She lived most of her years in New York and New Mexico. She spent her later years in a ranch house on Ghost Ranch, near the village of Abiquiú in Northern New Mexico. She painted the Ranchos de Taos Church in Taos, New Mexico in 1929.
O’Keeffe was born November 15, 1887, on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the second of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers of Irish and Hungarian descent. In late 1902, the O’Keeffes moved from Wisconsin to Williamsburg, Virginia. O’Keeffe stayed in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended high school. She joined her family in Virginia in 1903, where she went to boarding school at Chatham Episcopal Institute (now Chatham Hall). She graduated in 1905.
O’Keeffe then began her formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that same year. She also attended the Art Students League of New York, a school in New York City known for training many notable artists, including Norman Rockwell, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella.
She worked for two years as a commercial illustrator, from 1908-1910, and then taught in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina between 1911 and 1918. In 1918, she caught the influenza, along with 50 million people around the world, and recuperated in Texas.
In 1917, Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer and photographer in New York City, held an exhibit of her works. A year later, she moved to New York. Stieglitz found a place for her to live and provided financial support for her to focus on her art. The artists fell in love and married in 1924. They lived in New York City during the winter and spent their summers in Lake George, New York, where Stieglitz’s family had a home.
In the 1930s she started spending time in New Mexico, and moved there full-time in 1949. She died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1986 at age 98.
Georgia O’Keeffe and the Flowers of North America
O’Keeffe’s most famous paintings are her groundbreaking, oversized paintings of flowers. Of the more than 2,000 paintings she made over her career, roughly 200 of them are of flowers. She painted flowers in New York, Texas, New Mexico, and points in between, capturing the beauty of tulips, calla lilies, poppies, canna, irises, petunias, jimson weed, and others.
Her flowers stun the viewer with their vibrant colors and flowing lines, and their close-up view of the flower’s most inner parts. With her flowers, she explored the use of abstraction to design a striking composition that fuses shapes, textures, and patterns. She was inspired by modernist photographic techniques, including the close-cropping of photos, according to the Whitney Museum write-up here.
O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and other work from the 1920s and 1930s brought her great success. Her paintings were praised by critics and bought by collectors. Her White Iris painting of 1930 is a good example of the flower paintings that critics praised.
Another favorite flower painting is Red Poppy. The color can brighten any mood!
O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 painting from 1932 would go on to have quite an effect on the art market! In 2014, the painting sold for $44,405,000, more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum sold the painting at auction to Walmart heiress Alice Walton to earn more money for other acquisitions. Alice Walton then placed the work in the Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art.
Georgia O’Keeffe in New York
In her studies at the Art Students League of New York, O’Keeffe learned the techniques of traditional realist painting under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora, and Kenyon Cox. While studying, she became disillusioned with the standard way of teaching art which focused on imitating other artists and copying nature. She started to paint with her own style, using abstraction and composition to engage the viewer.
From 1912 to 1914, while studying art during the summers, she learned about the principles and philosophies of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow thought that art should be based on personal style and design, and that artists should interpret subjects, not just copy them. In 1915, she started work on a series of abstract charcoal drawings. These drawings were unlike any work that other American artists were doing at the time.
At the time, she wrote to her friend, Laura Pollitzer, “I wonder if I am a raving lunatic for trying to make these things.” She also told her friend, “I am writing only to you, you know.” Her friend didn’t listen and shared the drawings with a well-known photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz. This would be the start of a long artistic and romantic collaboration with the photographer.
Artistic and Romantic Collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz
O’Keeffe’s friend, Pollitzer, was impressed by the originality of O’Keeffe’s black-and-white abstract drawings, In 1916, she brought them to the 291 gallery and shared them with Alfred Stieglitz. 291 was the popular name of an internationally-known art gallery, founded by Stieglitz. It was located at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City from 1905 to 1917. Without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, Stieglitz displayed O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings in the gallery from May to July, 1916.
According to art historian Charles C. Eldredge, O’Keeffe, who was in New York for some lessons with Dow, “angrily descended upon 291 and demanded the show’s dismantling. The persuasive Stieglitz prevailed, however, and the exhibition launched the fruitful association between the two that continued for the next three decades.”
O’Keeffe and Stieglitz developed a professional and personal relationship and eventually married in 1924. Stieglitz encouraged O’Keeffe to move away from charcoals and watercolors, which he said were associated with weaker artists, and encouraged her to paint with oils. Indeed, after moving to New York, O’Keeffe started painting primarily with oils.
Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 was O’Keeffe’s first major oil painting, painted in 1918. It was almost three feet tall and hints at the large sizes she would continue to use throughout her career. In the painting and the title, O’Keeffe suggests that the viewer think about musical rhythms and patterns while enjoying the undulating lines and colors.
She followed her Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 painting that same year with another version that has brighter colors and an even more appealing feel to it than her first version. The painting evokes a state of emotional well-being similar to a state that soothing music can evoke.
To learn more about Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, be sure to watch educator Lauren Ridloff discuss the painting in this video.
Alfred Stieglitz Georgia O’Keeffe Photos
Stieglitz frequently photographed O’Keeffe and eventually produced more than 350 prints of her. He photographed her nude, partially clothed, drinking from a glass, and posing dramatically in front of her paintings. He photographed her body, her breasts, her hands, her face, and her beauty. He photographed her working on her art.
O’Keeffe and Stieglitz inspired and influenced each other. He was her muse, and she was his muse. Some of her most amazing art was created as she and Stieglitz were falling in love. According to the Georgia O’Keeffe a Life in Art video from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, “Between 1918 and 1923 she created some of the most original and significant abstractions of American modernism.”
Stieglitz’s photographs, despite their artistry and craftsmanship, unfortunately tainted O’Keeffe’s reputation. According to the video from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, critics couldn’t separate her art from Stieglitz’s erotic photos of her. Critics interpreted her art sexually and claimed to see female forms in the work. People made salacious comments about what they thought she intended to show with her close-ups of flower stamens and petals. O’Keeffe resisted this interpretation. She said her paintings were about natural forms, but not tied exclusively to female forms.
New York Scenes
During her time in New York, O’Keeffe painted her famous flowers and abstractions, which she is best known for, but she also painted cityscapes and the scenery around Lake George, New York. She frequently visited Lake George with Stieglitz and his family.
Her 1927 painting of the American Radiator Building in New York City barely looks like an O’Keeffe painting, with its stark subject matter. If you look closely, though, you can see her signature style, especially in the steam flowing out of the building on the right.
In 1928, she painted the East River in New York. Notice the use of Precisionism techniques in this painting. Precisionism chose themes of industrialism to portray the modernization of the American landscape, using precise, sharply-defined geometrical forms.
When O’Keeffe left the city and headed for Lake George, her style became more relaxed. She painted with flowing lines, loosely-delineated shapes, and vibrant colors.
She especially loved the fall season at Lake George. She chose warm, autumn colors to paint the outdoors at this time.
Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico
Starting in 1929, O’Keeffe began spending part of the year in New Mexico. Here she painted flowers, landscapes, canyons, and images of animal bones. Some of her most startling work from this era is her paintings of cow skulls and pelvic bones, including Pelvis with the Moon – New Mexico where she experimented with surrealism.
After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe lived permanently in New Mexico for many years in what is now the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiú, New Mexico. During these years O’Keeffe redefined herself on her own terms. She lived alone and traveled around the countryside by car, often painting from the car. In a later work, she painted the plains of Texas, using the same autumn colors that she had used in earlier years while visiting Lake George, New York.
Legacy and Later Life
O’Keeffe is best known for her abstract paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, and animal bones. She was one of the first artists to paint close-up renderings of uniquely American objects. She combined realism with abstraction in a way that very few other artists have been able to do. She was a major influence in the American Modernism movement. She was also influential in the Precisionism Movement.
O’Keeffe was an inspiration not only with her art, but also in the way she lived her life. She loved her husband deeply, as evidenced by letters between them, but carried on independently when he died. She moved to her beloved Southwest where she transformed an adobe hovel into her home and studio. She painted outdoors, traveled by car and air, and collected skulls and rattlesnake heads. She painted big artworks and lived a big life.
One of her last oil paintings, The Beyond, shows a big sky with blue clouds. It is hauntingly beautiful.
In the 1970s, O’Keeffe lost her peripheral vision due to macular degeneration and became unable to create oil paintings unassisted. O’Keeffe didn’t stop making art when her vision started to fail, however. In fact, she found new inspiration with her friend, Juan Hamilton, a potter and handyman. In 1973, she hired 27-year-old Hamilton to live with her and assist her. Hamilton taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, travelled to Morocco with her, listened to her stories, and helped around the house and the grounds. Their relationship shocked some people, especially when rumors circulated that they were secretly married (which they weren’t). According to Hamilton in this interview with Harper’s Bazaar, “Georgia just thought that was funny as could be—she loved it.”
O’Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984 with Hamilton to be closer to medical facilities. She died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the land around her beloved Ghost Ranch. Her art lives on, though, with its unique style and breadth of expression. Her paintings shock and delight us. Their emotive sensuality opens our eyes and brings to life a mythical view of flowers, landscapes, animal bones, and cityscapes.
In a country known for many things, good and bad, O’Keeffe stands for what’s right about the United States. Americans are rugged individuals who celebrate unique styles and creativity. North America is blessed with amazing vistas, cities, deserts, rivers, and mountains. Americans are modern, revolutionary, and independent, as was Georgia O’Keeffe. Her art is internationally-acclaimed, but in many ways, she was the quintessential American artist.