November 15, 1887 – Georgia O’Keeffe:
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
She was not a native of the Southwest. O’Keeffe was born on a Wisconsin dairy farm and lived in Chicago; New York City; Charlottesville, Virginia, and Amarillo before she first visited New Mexico in 1917.
In 1905, she was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago. Two years later she was accepted at the Art Students League in New York City.
Early in her career, O’Keeffe placed all her paintings in a room for evaluation. She destroyed all of them because she thought each piece was derivative. She started over knowing that her the art must be a true reflection of only herself.
Her mother had TB and her father’s failure as a businessman meant that O’Keeffe needed to work in Chicago as a commercial artist to help support the family.
O’Keeffe found work teaching drawing and penmanship in Amarillo, at the time a rowdy frontier town in the windy Texas Panhandle. She responded emotionally to the vast emptiness of the Texas plains. The townsfolk found her to be very unusual, with her black tailored outfits and her straight back pulled back hair, plus she took long walks all by herself.
In the fall of 1915, O’Keeffe taught art at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, one of the oldest women’s schools in the USA. She took classes at Columbia with Arthur Wesley Dow, a noted proponent of free love and an apostle of a New Age. Dow brought out a unique confidence in his female students. His ideas were quite revolutionary for the period; he demanded self-expression and personal experience in creating art. Dow’s principles were pivotal in O’Keeffe’s development as an artist.
She began to experiment with charcoal and abstract shapes, struggling to find her own style. These early works represented her dreams. She mailed them to a Columbia classmate who showed the works to the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who had founded 291, an internationally famous art gallery. Stieglitz used this space to introduce Americans to Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp.
He was impressed, and said that the drawings were:
” … the purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered the gallery in a long time.”
In spring 1916, Stieglitz exhibited 10 of her drawings at his gallery without O’Keeffe’s knowledge or permission. O’Keeffe heard about it through an acquaintance. She was upset and embarrassed, and she confronted Stieglitz, demanding that he close the exhibition. He refused. The public was shocked by what was perceived as the frank sexuality of her shapes; throughout her life, she denied the sexual symbolism that others saw in her art. I still see them as dirty pictures, don’t you? But, in the good way.
Stieglitz encouraged O’Keeffe to move to New York City; by this time, he had fallen in love with her. In 1918, she chose Manhattan and Stieglitz. At this point, Stieglitz was a married, middle-aged man and O’Keeffe was young enough to be his daughter.
O’Keeffe had her first major solo exhibition in 1923. She became known for her in unique style that was closely centered around an emotional and feminine content.
In 1924, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married after he divorced wife number one. Their artistic, professional and personal relationships were intertwined until his death in 1946 at 82 years old. O’Keeffe kept going for another 40 years.
They both had relationships with others; he with women, she with both women and men. At least once, they were lovers with the same woman. This woman, artist Rebecca Salsbury James, was the wife of the famous photographer Paul Strand. She was a close friend and lover of O’Keeffe for many years.
O’Keeffe traveled with James to New Mexico by 1929 and stayed in Taos at the home of wealthy arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who provided the women with studios. O’Keeffe explored the rugged mountains and deserts of New Mexico that summer and visited writer D. H. Lawrence‘s ranch, where she completed her now famous painting, The Lawrence Tree. The girls visited the historical San Francisco de Asis Mission Church outside of Taos. She made several paintings of the church and her painting of a fragment of it silhouetted against the sky became one of her most famous.
O’Keeffe may have had little sexual interest in men. Most of her male friends were either married or queer, or both. She often fell in love with couples, same-sex or traditional. She had a real thing with Margery Latimer and Blanche Matthias. Latimer was in New York writing a novel and Matthias urged Stieglitz to introduce her to his wife. The trio would go to all-night parties, some thrown in Harlem by gay writer and the bisexual photographer Carl Van Vechten and his Russian actor wife Fania Marinoff.
The Brooklyn Museum held an O’Keeffe retrospective in 1927. In 1928, Stieglitz told to the press that six of her calla lily paintings sold to an anonymous buyer in France for $25,000. O’Keeffe’s paintings sold at a higher price from that point forward. By the late 1920s, she was a celebrated American artist, particularly known for her paintings of NYC skyscrapers and her close-up paintings of flowers.
In 1928, Stieglitz began an affair with his pretty 21-year-old studio assistant Dorothy Norman and O’Keeffe lost a commission to create a mural for Radio City Music Hall. She was hospitalized for depression.
O’Keeffe began to spend the summers painting in New Mexico in 1929. In 1933, she was hospitalized for two months with another terrible nervous breakdown, still heartbroken over Stieglitz’s continuing affair with Norman. She returned to New Mexico in mid-1934.
O’Keeffe enjoyed her celebrity, but what she really enjoyed was peace and quiet. She did not like travelling to art exhibitions or dealing with the selling of her paintings. She enjoyed solitude and a more personal side of an artist’s life, although she did enjoy that people loved her work.
She settled in New Mexico, calling her home Ghost Ranch. It was here, that O’Keeffe found find time to herself. She had occasional guests over the years, including Cecil Beaton, Joni Mitchell, gay writer Allen Ginsberg, and photographer Ansel Adams.
In 1938, she was commissioned to do two paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dow) to use in their advertising. The offer came at a critical time: she was 51 years old, and critics were calling her focus on New Mexico limited, branding her desert images a kind of mass production. She loved Hawaii, and she had a prolific period painting tropical flowers and landscapes. However, she did not paint that requested pineapple until the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sent a plant to her studio.
In 1943, O’Keeffe had a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1946, she was the first female artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan, the next year, The Whitney Museum of American Art had a major show of O’Keeffes.
At 84, O’Keeffe began to go blind, eventually retaining only peripheral vision. In the 1970s, despite her age and blindness, O’Keeffe continued to paint large sky and river paintings. She did her last unassisted painting in 1972.
The next year, a handsome 72-years-old ceramic artist named Juan Hamilton arrived at her door to offer his assistance as a handyman. He became her assistant, companion, and representative for her remaining years.
In 1976, with Hamilton’s encouragement, she published Georgia O’Keeffe, a bestselling collection of high-quality prints with text by the artist. She also experimented in clay with Hamilton’s help.
O’Keeffe received the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor from President Gerald Ford in 1977. Her 90th birthday party was held at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and she received the National Medal of Arts from Ronald Reagan in 1985.
In 1984, O’Keeffe moved back to Santa Fe to live with Hamilton and his family. The next year she left this world at 98 years old. The bulk of her estate went to Hamilton, prompting a law suit by O’Keeffe’s family. Hamilton agreed to donate 2/3 of his inheritance to the museums and institutions in her original will.
In 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe with an exhibition curated by Hamilton. It is the first art museum dedicated to the work of a woman artist.
At $44.4 million in 2014, O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed broke the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a woman.