Georgia O'Keeffe

From New World Encyclopedia

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, New Mexico, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1950.
November 15, 1887
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
March 6, 1986
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6,1986) was an American artist, widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. O'Keeffe has been a major figure in American art since the 1920s, chiefly known for her large, close-up paintings of natural objects and landscapes. Her paintings present crisply contoured forms that are replete with subtle tonal transitions of varying colors, and she often transformed her subject matter into powerful abstract images.

Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest…I have picked flowers where I found them…sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood…that I liked…beautiful white bones on the desert…. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it…. The unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big— far beyond my understanding—[I attempt] to understand, maybe, by trying to put it into form [and] to find the feeling of infinity on the horizon or just over the next hill.
I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it. —Georgia O’Keeffe

By exploring and celebrating the beauty and even the mystery of nature, O'Keefe's art can help people to re-assess their natural impulse (whether it be divine mandate or humanistic impulse) to be good stewards of the natural world and to imagine what the world ought to be like. Art, such as O'Keefe's can deepen and awaken our inner selves, our spiritual insights. It is a universal art that can contribute to building a peaceful world.

Early Life

O'Keeffe during her time at the University of Virginia, July 1915

O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to Francis O'Keeffe and Ida Totto O'Keeffe, who were successful dairy farmers. She was the first girl and the second of seven O'Keeffe children. When she was twelve years old, she announced that she would become an artist. Although she did not know how she got that idea, she said it "as if I had thought it all out and my mind was made up."

Because of Ida O’Keefe’s cultural interests, Georgia and her sisters took drawing and painting lessons from local artists, learning perspective, shading and watercolor. Later on, she wrote of many visual memories of her home and the surrounding country—places she explored both in art and in her mind’s eye.

She attended high school in Madison, Wisconsin, and subsequently at the Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia, from which she graduated in 1905. She said, “I loved [walking in that] country, and always on the horizon, far away, was the line of the Blue Ridge Mountains—calling—as the distance has always been calling me.” Her remarks about the Blue Ridge Mountains could just as well have been about her future home in New Mexico.

Georgia later spoke about learning from one of her art teachers at Madison High. She "[held] a Jack-in-the-pulpit high and pointed out the strange shapes and variations in color…the purplish hood and…the Jack inside. I was a little annoyed at being interested because I didn’t like…her, but maybe she started me looking at things—looking very carefully at details. It was certainly the first time my attention was called to the outline and color of any growing thing with the idea of drawing or painting it.”

In 1905, O'Keeffe enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. She endured Anatomy Class, but was especially pleased with her figure-drawing teacher, John Vanderpoel. She later wrote that John Vanderpoel was “one of the few real teachers I have known.” So when his lectures were put into a book called The Human Figure, she read it and “treasured [it] for many years.”

In 1907 she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied with William Merritt Chase. “There was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exacting about him that made him fun. His love of style—color—paint as paint—was lively. I loved…the things we painted for him.” Then, in 1908, she won the League's William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League's outdoor summer school at Lake George, New York.

1908 was the first time she visited the 291—a small gallery in New York City—where she saw an exhibition of Rodin's watercolors. More significantly, the 291 was owned by her future husband, the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and this would be where they eventually met.

That fall, O'Keeffe returned to Chicago and worked as an illustrator. She had stopped painting in 1908, when she realized she could not distinguish herself as a painter working in the tradition of her academic training.

But she was inspired to paint again in 1912, when she attended a class at the University of Virginia Summer School, where she was introduced to the cutting edge ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow's teachings encouraged artists to express themselves through harmonious designs of line, color, and shape, and emphasized that art should also fill space in a beautiful way. These concepts strongly influenced O'Keeffe's thinking about the process of making art.

After she taught art and penmanship in the public schools in Texas for two years, she met and studied with Dow at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York in the fall of 1914. She also taught at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina in the fall of 1915.

…It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language...I had become fluent in them when I was so young that they were simply another language that I handled easily. But what to say with them? I said to myself, “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me—shapes and ideas so near to me—so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.” I decided to start anew…to accept as true my own thinking…

She began to “grade” each of the paintings and works she had done, and then to explore her own style. She used only charcoal. “I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white.” Six months later, she found she needed the color blue. She used it for a watercolor painting she called "Blue Lines."

At the same time, O'Keeffe determined to put Dow's ideas to the test, and in turning to abstraction, created a series of charcoal drawings that are among the most innovative of any art produced in that period. She mailed some of these abstract charcoals to her friend in New York, Anita Pollitzer, who showed them to Stieglitz early in 1916. He was immediately impressed and began corresponding with O'Keeffe. He exhibited ten of her drawings in a group exhibition that opened in that spring at 291; more of her work was shown there in an informal group show in August, and in April, 1917, Steiglitz organized O'Keeffe's first one-person show there.

O'Keeffe moved to Texas in the fall of 1916, where she taught for the next 18 months. Becoming ill in 1917, she took a leave of absence from teaching and moved from Canyon to the warmer climate of San Antonio. She and Stieglitz had exchanged letters on an ongoing basis since 1916 and were becoming increasingly fond of one another. In May 1918, she received an invitation from him to move to New York to paint for a year and arrived there on June 10, 1918.

New York

Stieglitz arranged for O'Keeffe to live in his niece's unoccupied studio apartment, and by July, he and O'Keeffe had fallen deeply in love. He left his wife Emmeline Obermeyer Stieglitz to live with O'Keeffe.

Stieglitz became O'Keeffe's strongest supporter. In turn, she wanted her art to please Stieglitz more than anyone else. Seven years later, in 1924, they married. He was 24 years her senior.

Following the finalization of his divorce, they spent winter and spring in Manhattan and summer and fall at the Stieglitz family house at Lake George in upstate New York. He had started making photographs of O'Keeffe when she visited him in New York to see her 1917 exhibition. He continued making photographs of her, and in February, 1921, forty-five of his photographs, including many of O'Keeffe in her birthday suit, were exhibited in a retrospective exhibition of his work held at the Anderson Galleries. The photographs of O'Keeffe created a public sensation.

During O'Keeffe's early years in New York she got to know the many early American modernists who were part of Stieglitz's circle of friends, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. Strand's photography, as well as that of Stieglitz and his many photographer friends, inspired O'Keeffe's work. Soon after she moved to New York, she began working primarily in oil, which represented a shift away from her having worked mainly in watercolor in the 1910s, and by the mid-1920s, she began making large scale paintings of natural forms from close up, as if seen through a magnifying lens.

During the 1920s, O'Keeffe made both natural and architectural forms the subject of her work. She painted her first large-scale flower painting in 1924, Petunia, No. 2, which was first exhibited in 1925, and completed a significant body of paintings of New York buildings, such as City Night, and New York—Night, 1926, and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York, 1927.

Beginning in 1923, Stieglitz organized exhibitions of O'Keeffe's work annually, and by the mid-1920s, she had become known as one of America's most important artists. Her work commanded high prices; in 1928 six of her calla lily paintings sold for U.S. $25,000, which was at the time the largest sum ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist.

Over the years, O'Keeffe "became angered by some criticism of her work. 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, she said, they did not know."

New Mexico

By 1930 O'Keeffe began spending time in New Mexico. She called it "the faraway.” She began in the summer of 1929 by visiting Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico with the wife of another artist. There, she was invigorated—physically, mentally, and artistically. The American Southwest was to become “her truest, most consistent visual source. The sky, the vastness, the sounds, the danger of the plains, Badlands, canyons, rocks, and bleached bones of the desert, struck her as authentic and essential to her life as well as to her art.” [1]

[She]…experienced a distinctly New World freedom…and would freely occupy and explore wide-open stretches of the Southwest. This was at a time when the roads of New Mexico were treacherous, if they existed at all, and electricity, telephones, or other utility services were years away. She would test her physical and psychological independence by living beyond the fringe of civilization.

This almost biblical exile was her fundamental path to sustained revelation. It was as if she were laying claim to the "faraway" regions, taking hold of their remarkable presences, seeking discoveries for her art. In the Southwest she was free to pursue the fantastic effects of nature, the forces of the elements, and the geological history so dramatically evident in its canyons and stratified hills. She could travel for miles without human contact or traces of development, accepting the risks posed by weather and wild animals. She could also experience the contradictory overlapping of the rituals of the Native Americans and those of the colonial Spanish. In this exotic, foreign atmosphere, the artist was, simultaneously, daredevil, participant, and voyeur.[2]

From 1929 through 1949, she spent most of her summers working there, returning to New York every fall. During her second summer, she began collecting and painting bones, then painting the area's distinctive architectural and landscape forms. O'Keeffe became ill for a year and did not paint again until January 1934. She recuperated and returned to New Mexico in summer. That fall, she discovered Ghost Ranch, an area north of Abiquiu, whose painted desert of dramatically colored, enormous cliffs and hills inspired some of her most famous landscapes.

In 1929 she wrote from Taos, "You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here-and finally feeling in the right place again-I feel like myself—and I like it— . . . Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields—then the sage brush and beyond—a most perfect mountain—it makes me feel like flying-and I don't care what becomes of art.”

O'Keeffe became ill for a year and did not paint again until January 1934. When she was away she wrote, “When the spring comes I think I must go back to [the Southwest] I sometimes wish I had never seen it—The pull is so strong—so give my greetings to the sky" (October 21, 1933). She recuperated and returned to New Mexico in summer. That fall, she discovered Ghost Ranch, an area north of Abiquiu, whose painted desert of dramatically colored, enormous cliffs and hills inspired some of her most famous landscapes.

In the 1930s and 1940s, O'Keeffe's reputation and popularity continued to grow, and she received numerous commissions. Her work was included in exhibitions in and around New York, and in the 1940s, and she was given two one-woman retrospectives, the first at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and another in 1946 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first ever given by that museum to a woman. She was also awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities; one given by the College of William and Mary in 1938; and in the mid-1940s, the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a project to establish the first catalog of her work.

O'Keeffe was an influential figure in American art history, even in the 1940s, but she was also a target for criticism by critics like Clement Greenberg, who had nothing but negative words to express. She held her own, however, though he said, "…the greatest part of her work adds up to little more than tinted photography. The lapidarian patience she has expended in trimming, breathing upon, and polishing these bits of opaque cellophane betrays a concern that has less to do with art than with private worship and the embellishment of private fetishes with secret and arbitrary meanings…" (review, June 15, 1946). “She endured a lifetime of sycophants' and novelists' fascination with her personal life, her relationships, her status as role model, her every deep or shallow breath.” [3]

After Stiegitz's death in 1946, O'Keeffe spent the next three years mostly in New York settling his estate, whereupon she moved to New Mexico permanently. During the 1950s, O'Keeffe produced a series of paintings featuring the architectural forms—patio wall and door—of her adobe house in Abiquiu. Another distinctive painting of the decade is Ladder to the Moon (1958). As a result of her first world travels in the late 1950s, she produced an extensive series of paintings (Above the Clouds 1962-1963), inspired by what she saw from the windows of airplanes.

O’Keeffe’s strength and vitality during the 1960s are still evident in her large sky and river paintings and smaller still-life images of rocks and other natural forms, as well as in her colorful and broadly brushed watercolors. “Her eager, keen vision, and her response to that vision continue to astonish us.” [4]

In 1962, she was elected to the 50-member American Academy of Arts and Letters, but by the early 1970s, O'Keeffe's eyesight began to be compromised by macular degeneration. O'Keeffe met potter Juan Hamilton in 1973, who began doing household jobs for the artist and soon became her friend and close companion. He taught her to work with clay and helped her complete her book, Georgia O’Keeffe, published in 1976, as well as the Perry Miller Adato video project, Georgia O'Keeffe, which aired on national television in 1977. She completed her last unassisted work in oil in 1972, The Beyond, and worked unassisted in watercolor and charcoal until 1978 and in graphite until 1984.

In 1984 O'Keeffe moved to Santa Fe to be closer to medical facilities. She died at St. Vincent's Hospital, Santa Fe on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. She was cremated and her ashes scattered around the Pedernal, the mountain that she could see from the patio of her Ghost Ranch house. She had painted it many times and called it her own.

Her art is memorable. A clear, indelible core image of each work is retained in our mind's eye after even the briefest glimpse…. It is not enough to quote Alon Bement or Arthur Dow whose teachings and writings influenced the young artist and who held that the highest goal of art was to fill space in a beautiful way. Neither can one credit everything to the emergence of modern photographic vision, despite the notable contributions of Imogen Cunningham, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, or the turn-of-the-century German Karl Blossfeldt. Despite O'Keeffe's deep pleasure in Chinese and Japanese art and, indeed, much of the history of art, one still lacks an explanation why her work remains so memorable. Perhaps it is because it is ecstatic, as ecstatic as her relationship to the very real, very visible world around her. To this she adds a distinctive, urgent, and disciplined personal vision. This inner eye of the artist controlled, tightened, made taut the best of her works. O'Keeffe was mad for work. She was adventurous and she had the egotistic notion that she could, in fact, capture an unknown and make it known. Whether O'Keeffe's work was the result of naive folly or inspired genius, her art bears dramatic witness to her wonder in life and the world. [5]


Much of O'Keeffe's legacy is in the viewers' eye. The words and thoughts about her that have been written are evidence that her legacy will live on—in the same way that her art touched the minds of those who viewed it. Students and experts continue to study and write about her work.

To her aesthetic world she was compelled to bring her life and actual experiences, expressed through her direct phenomenological point of view. She leaves us the record of all this in her art. Rarely a strict narrative, her art allows us to remember things she had seen, experienced, or sensed, images grounded in authenticity. She consciously nurtured her memories of events, giving them new life as art.[6]

In 1977 President Gerald Ford presented her with the Medal of Freedom. Eight years later, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

Major collections of O'Keeffe's work include those at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

O'Keeffe was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and during her lifetime, she received ten honorary doctorates and numerous books have been written about her life and her work.

In 1999 the two-volume Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, by Barbara Buhler Lynes, was published, authenticating, reproducing, and describing 2,029 of her pieces dating from 1901 to 1984.

Following O'Keeffe's death her family contested her will because codicils to it made in the 1980s had left all of her estate to Hamilton. The lawsuit was settled out of court and a not-for-profit foundation was established to oversee the disposition of her works over the next twenty years. In March 2006, the Foundation dissolved, and its assets were transferred to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, established in Santa Fe in 1997 to perpetuate O'Keeffe's artistic legacy. These assets included a large body of her work, photographs, archival materials, and her Abiquiu house, library, and property. [7]

The United States Postal Service honored O'Keeffe by issuing a stamp of Red Poppy (1927).

A fossil found at Ghost Ranch by Edwin H. Colbert in the 1940s was named Effigia okeeffeae in O'Keeffe's honor.

In 1993, a series of 28 watercolors said to be painted by O'Keeffe in 1916-1918, collectively known as The Canyon Suite, was bought by banker and philanthropist R. Crosby Kemper Jr. for U.S. $5.5 million, who gave the works to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.


  1. ^  The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation to Transfer Assets to Georgia O'Keeffe Museum], Press Release. May 31, 2005.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
  • Lynes, Barbara B. Georgia O'Keeffe. London: Catalogue Raisonné, 1999. ISBN 978-0300081763
  • Messinger, Lisa M. Georgia O'Keeffe. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. ISBN 0500203407
  • O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: The Viking Press, 1978. ISBN 0670337102
  • Robinson, Roxana. "O'Keeffe, Georgia." American National Biography Online. 2000.
  • Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O'Keeffe: A life. London: Bloomsbury, 1990. ISBN 0747505578

External links

All links retrieved May 21, 2024.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.