“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way –– things I had no words for.”
— Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, USA in 1887. Today is the 125 anniversary of her birth.
O’Keeffe knew she wanted to be an artist by the time she was 10-years-old. At 18 she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and transferred to the Art Students League of New York a year later.
Though her student work was well received she found it unfulfilling, and for a short time abandoned the fine arts. She worked briefly as a commercial artist in Chicago before moving to Texas to teach. [American Masters]
At 28 she took some classes at the Teachers College of Columbia University in South Carolina. There she met instructor Arthur Down who “Helped O’Keeffe move away from the forms she had found so stifling” and toward her own, unique style.
A friend mailed some of the charcoal drawings she did in Texas to Alfred Stieglitz in 1916. The photographer and gallery owner was so “enthused with the vibrant energy of the work” [American Masters]that he put together an exhibition of the work. “So, without her knowledge, Georgia O’Keeffe had her first exhibition… at Steiglitz’s “291 Gallery.” [Ibid]
The following year O’Keeffe and Stieglitz worked together on a larger solo show that included both watercolors and oil paintings. By June 1918 Stieglitz had convinced her to move to New York and spend all her time painting.
Six years later the two were married, beginning one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era. For the next twenty years the two would live and work together, Stieglitz creating an incredible body of portraits of O’Keeffe, while O’Keeffe showed new drawings and paintings nearly every year at the gallery. [Ibid]
A vacation to New Mexico in 1929 proved a turning point for the artist. She discovered “the open skies and sun-drenched landscape” of the desert that she would return to annually. She bought a Model A Ford to drive around the desert, and if the heat got too intense she would crawl under the car for shade.
More than almost any of her other works, these early New Mexico landscapes and still lifes have come to represent her unique gifts. The rich texture of the clouds and sky were similar to her earlier, more sensuous representations of flowers. But beneath these clouds one found the bleached bones of animals long gone. [American Masters]
Her summer pilgrimages lasted until Stieglitz’s death in 1946 when she took up residence in a pre-Civil War period adobe outside Abiquiu.
“When I bought it, it was totally uninhabitable. Architecturally it is not a masterpiece, but a house that grew.” The rooms were mostly bare, though some contained dilapidated furniture. The house had been added to in various stages after the Civil War. A large summer house and a lilac tree stood in the garden. The rooms inside were in disarray…. However, the arrangement was appealing, and all the rooms opened to the patio. When O’Keeffe began to stay at Abiquiu… there was hardly a room she could live in. [Architectural Digest.com]
O’Keeffe’s reputation as an artist continued to grow throughout the 50’s and 60’s. In 1970 she has a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art which cemented her position among “the most important and influential American painters.” [American Masters]
By 1972 her vision began to fail (she suffered from macular degeneration) and she stopped painting with oils. But when a young potter by the name of Juan Hamilton came to her house looking for work in 1973 a new artistic world opened up for O’Keeffe. “With his encouragement and assistance, she resumed painting and sculpting.” [Ibid] Hamilton became her business manager and closest companion.
In 1976 she wrote her autobiography “Georgia O’Keeffe.” It was a best seller. In 1977 President Ford awarded her with the Medal of Freedom and in 1985 President Reagan gave her the Medal of the Arts.
Georgia O’Keeffe died at the age of 98 in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1986.
UPDATE: We went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia on Friday and I snapped this shot of O’Keeffe’s White Iris.