Georgia Totto O'Keeffe
(November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) was an American artist. Born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O'Keeffe was a major figure in American art from the 1920s.
received widespread recognition for her technical contributions, as
well as for challenging the boundaries of modern American artistic
style. She is chiefly known for paintings of flowers, rocks,
shells, animal bones, and landscapes in which she synthesized
abstraction and representation. Her paintings present crisply
contoured forms that are replete with subtle tonal transitions of
varying colors. She often transformed her subject matter into
powerful abstract images.
O'Keeffe played a central role in bringing an American art style to
at a time when the majority of
influence flowed in the opposite direction. This feat enhanced her
art-historical importance given that she was one of few women to
have gained entry to this level of professional influence.
artistic inspiration in the rural Southwest, particularly in
Mexico, where she settled late in life.
was born November 15, 1887, in a farmhouse near Sun Prairie,
Her parents, Francis Calyxtus O'Keeffe and
Ida Totto O'Keeffe, were dairy farmers
. Her father was of Irish descent. Ida Totto's
father, George Victor Totto, for whom Georgia O'Keeffe was named,
was a Hungarian count who came to America in 1848. Through her
mother, O'Keeffe was descended from Edward Fuller
, one of the
passengers on the Mayflower
and a signer
of the Mayflower Compact
She was the first girl and the second of seven O'Keeffe children.
O'Keeffe's mother made her and her sisters attend art classes.
Because her parents believed she did so well, they suggested she
attend art school. She attended Town Hall School in Wisconsin,
receiving art instruction from local watercolorist Sara Mann.
attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison,
Wisconsin, as a boarder between 1901 and 1902.
1902 the O'Keeffes moved from Wisconsin to the close-knit
neighborhood of Peacock Hill in
Georgia stayed in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended Madison High
School, then joined her family in Hollywood in 1903. She completed
high school as a boarder at Chatham Episcopal
Virginia (now Chatham Hall
graduated in 1905. Education for women was a family tradition.
Georgia's mother, Ida had been educated in the East. All but one of
the daughters became professionals, attesting to her influence on
O'Keeffe enrolled at the School of the
Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1907, she attended the Art Students League
York City, where she studied under William Merritt Chase
. In 1908, she
won the League's William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil
painting mona shehab
(Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot).
was a scholarship to attend the League's outdoor summer school at
George, New York. While in the city in 1908, O'Keeffe
attended an exhibition of Rodin's
watercolors at the 291, owned by her future husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
13 Special, 1916/1917, Charcoal on paper
In the autumn of 1908, discouraged with her work, O'Keeffe did not
return to the League but moved to Chicago and found work as a
commercial artist. During this period, she did not pick up a
paintbrush and said that the smell of turpentine made her sick.
became an elementary school art teacher near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. 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
innovative ideas of Arthur Wesley
Dow by Alon Bement.
Dow encouraged artists to express
themselves through harmonious compositions and contrasts of light
and dark. His teaching (as well as that of Dow protégé Charles J. Martin
) strongly influenced
O'Keeffe's thinking about the process of making art. She served as a
teaching assistant to Bement for several years, before returning to
Texas to teach in the art department of the fledgling West Texas
A&M University (then West Texas State Normal College) in Canyon just south of Amarillo. She was inspired to
go there because of the natural beauty of the nearby large Palo Duro
Canyon, carved by wind and water.
Early in 1916, Anita Pollitzer
some of O'Keeffe's drawings to Alfred
at his 291
gallery. He told Anita the
drawings were the "purest, finest, sincerest things that had
entered 291 in a long while.", and that he would like to show them.
O'Keeffe had first visited 291
in 1908, but had never
talked with Stieglitz, although she had high regard for his
opinions as a critic. In April 1916, Stieglitz exhibited ten of her
drawings. O'Keeffe had not been consulted before the exhibit and
only learned about it through an acquaintance; she confronted
Stieglitz for the first time over the drawings and agreed to let
them hang. Georgia O'Keeffe's first solo show opened at
in April 1917, with the majority being watercolors
Shortly after her arrival in New York, Stieglitz took O'Keeffe to
the Stieglitz family home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains
. They would return
to the lake home each summer for years to come, where O'Keeffe
would later produce many paintings of the Lake George
Stieglitz arranged for O'Keeffe to live in his niece's unoccupied
studio apartment and cared for O'Keeffe while she was there. By
July, he and O'Keeffe had fallen deeply in love. He left his wife
Emmeline Obermeyer Stieglitz to live with O'Keeffe, and after he
was divorced in 1924, they married. They spent winter and spring in
Manhattan and summer and fall at the Stieglitz family house at Lake
Blue-Green Music, Georgia
Stieglitz had started photographing O'Keeffe when she visited him
in New York to see her 1917 exhibition. He continued making
photographs of her, taking more than 300 portraits between 1918 and
1937. Most of the more erotic poses were from the first few years
of their marriage. In February 1921, forty-five of Stieglitz's
photographs, including many of O'Keeffe and some in the nude, were
exhibited in a retrospective exhibition at the Anderson Galleries.
The photographs of O'Keeffe created a public sensation.
During her early years in New York City, O'Keeffe grew to know the
many early American modernists
who were part of Stieglitz's circle of friends, including Charles Demuth
, Marsden Hartley
, 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 in watercolor in the 1910s. By the mid-1920s,
O'Keeffe began making large-scale paintings of natural forms at
close range, as if seen through a magnifying lens.
During the 1920s, O'Keeffe made both natural and architectural
forms the subject of her work. In 1924 she painted her first
large-scale flower painting Petunia, No. 2
was first exhibited in 1925. She quickly completed a significant
body of paintings of New York buildings, such as City
and New York--Night
, 1926, and Radiator
Bldg--Night, New York
Works such as "Black Iris III" (1926) evoke a veiled representation
of female genitalia. O'Keeffe constantly denied painting vaginal
imagery, but many prominent art historians have linked her work to
feminist artists of the 1970s. Notably, Judy Chicago
gave O'Keeffe a prominent place in
her "The Dinner Party" work.
Beginning in 1923, Stieglitz organized annual exhibitions of
O'Keeffe's work. By the mid-1920s, O'Keeffe 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 $25,000 US
dollars, which was the largest sum ever paid for a group of
paintings by a living American artist. This drew media attention to
O'Keeffe as never before.
By 1928, O'Keeffe began to feel the need to travel and find more
inspiring artwork. The demands of an annual show needed new
material. Friends returning with stories from the West stimulated
O'Keeffe's desire to see and explore new places. In May 1929, she set
out by train with her friend Beck Strand to Taos, New
Mexico. They went to Santa Fe and then to Albuquerque.
Soon after their arrival, O'Keeffe and
Strand were invited to stay at Mabel
's ranch outside of Taos for the summer. O'Keeffe
went on many pack trips
rugged mountains and deserts of the region. On one trip she
visited the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and spent several weeks there and painted "her now
famous oil painting, 'The Lawrence Tree', which is currently owned
by the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT".
Mexico in 1929, O'Keeffe visited the historical mission
church at Ranchos de Taos.
Although many artists had made paintings of
the church, O'Keeffe's painting of a fragment of the mission wall
silhouetted against the dark blue sky captured it in a different
Between 1929 and 1949, O'Keeffe spent part of nearly every year
working in New Mexico. During her second summer there, she began
collecting and painting bones, and started painting the area's
distinctive architectural and landscape forms. Each fall she
returned to New York.
O'Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown following an uncompleted
Music Hall mural project that had fallen behind
She was hospitalized in early 1933 and did not
paint again until January 1934. In the spring of 1933 and 1934,
O'Keeffe recuperated in Bermuda and she returned to New Mexico in
the summer of 1934. In June of that year, she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu, for the first time and decided immediately to live
there; in 1940 she purchased a house on the ranch property.
The varicolored cliffs of Ghost Ranch inspired some of her most
famous landscapes. Among guests to visit her at the ranch over the
years were Charles and Anne
and Ansel Adams
A loner, O'Keeffe explored this place she loved on her own. She
bought a Ford Model A
asked others to teach her how to drive. After one particularly
exasperating moment, one of her teachers declared that she was
unable to learn the art of driving. Only her determination was to
lead to mastering her machine.
In the 1930s and 1940s O'Keeffe's reputation and popularity
continued to grow, earning her numerous commissions. Her work was
included in exhibitions in and around New York. In 1936 Summer
, a painting featuring a cattle skull adorned with various
wildflowers, against a desert background, was completed. It would
become one of her most famous and well-known works. During the
1940s O'Keeffe had two one-woman retrospectives. The first
retrospective was housed at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943). The second retrospective was held in 1946 at
the Museum of
Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan, the first retrospective MOMA
held for a woman artist.
O'Keeffe enjoyed many accolades and
honorary degrees from numerous universities. In the mid-1940s the
Museum of American Art sponsored a project to establish the first
catalogue of her work.
In 1945 O'Keeffe bought a second home, an abandoned hacienda in
Abiquiu, some 16 miles (26 km) south of Ghost Ranch. The
Abiquiu house was renovated through 1948 and became the setting for
many later paintings.
While O'Keeffe was spending the summer of 1946 in New Mexico,
Stieglitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis. She quickly flew to New
York to be with him. He died on July 13, 1946. She took his ashes
to Lake George and buried them at the foot of a tall pine tree
beside the lake. Although separated for long periods through the
years, Stieglitz had taken care of many business details for
O'Keeffe. She now had to take on these responsibilities.
In 1949 O'Keeffe moved to New Mexico permanently. During the 1950s
she produced a series of paintings featuring the architectural
forms--patio wall and door--of her adobe
in Abiquiu. Another distinctive painting of the decade was
Ladder to the Moon
, 1958. From her first world travels in
the late 1950s, O'Keeffe produced an extensive series of paintings
of clouds, such as Above the Clouds I,
were inspired by her views from the windows of airplanes. Below is
an external link to a color image of one of these aerial cloudscape
In 1962, O'Keeffe was elected to the fifty-member American Academy of Arts
. In the fall of 1970, the Whitney Museum of
American Art mounted the Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective
, the first major showing of her work since 1946,
the year Stieglitz died. This exhibit did much to revive her public
career. It brought O'Keeffe to the attention of a new generation of
women raised on the principles of feminism
In 1971 O'Keeffe became aware that her eyesight was failing. At the
age of 84, she was losing her central vision and only had peripheral
sight, due to an irreversible eye
degeneration disease. She stopped painting in 1972. Juan Hamilton,
a young potter, appeared at her ranch house in 1973 looking for
work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full
time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business
manager until her death.
O'Keeffe dabbled in pottery herself, and had a large kiln installed
at the ranch for firing pots. Even with her dimming eyesight, she
was inspired by Hamilton and others to paint again. She hired a
studio assistant to execute some of her ideas. During this time she
agreed to accept interviews and other opportunities. In 1976 she
wrote a book about her art, with Hamilton's help. She also allowed
a film crew to do a documentary at Ghost Ranch.
On January 10, 1977, President Gerald R. Ford
awarded O'Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom
the highest honor awarded to American citizens.
O'Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to
Santa Fe, where she died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
O'Keeffe continued to paint only weeks before her death. In
accordance with her instructions, she was cremated the next day.
Juan Hamilton walked to the top of the Pedernal Mountain
and scattered her ashes
to the wind, over her beloved "faraway".
Following O'Keeffe's death, her family contested her will because
to it made in the 1980s had
left all of her estate to Hamilton. The case was ultimately settled
in July 1987. The case, which was settled out of court, became
famous as case law in estate planning. A substantial part of her
estate's assets were transferred to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
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.
O'Keeffe Home and Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark in
biopic of Georgia O'Keeffe premiering on September 19, 2009,
starring Joan Allen
as O’Keeffe, Jeremy Irons
as Alfred Stieglitz
, Henry Simmons
, Ed Begley, Jr.
Stieglitz' brother Lee, and Tyne Daly
Mabel Dodge Luhan
In an episode of The Simpsons
O'Keeffe is included in a Thanksgiving
centerpiece being constructed by Lisa
. Lisa dedicates the centerpiece to the "trailblazing
women who made our country great" and includes Susan B. Anthony
and Marjory Stoneman Douglas
In an episode of Family Guy
O'Keeffe is mentioned in the episode where Chris becomes a famous
artist. Antonio Monatti introduces Chris at his
first exhibit by saying, "1541 Michelangelo unveils the Sistine
Chapel. 1886 Seurat completes
1940 Georgia O'Keeffe
paints a lot of flowers
that look suspiciously like vaginas. But in the new millennium
there is only Christobel."
- O’Keeffe, Georgia, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York: Viking
Press, 1976 ISBN 0-670-33710-2
- Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of
Georgia O'Keeffe & Anita Pollitzer (ed C.Giboire).Touchstone
Books 1990 ISBN 978-0671692360
-  "Twenty-three-year-old Ida named her infant
Georgia Totto for her patrician Hungarian grandfather, George
Totto. Georgia, it appeared, would have Ida's dark hair, and her
round face was pure Irish, like her father's. The variegated
pigment of her eyes suggested the mingled bloodlines of brown-eyed
maternal forebears and blue-eyed paternal ones."
- City of Canyon, Texas
- Maurer, Rachel "The D. H. Lawrence Ranch" (A
detailed history of the Lawrence Ranch) on unm.edu. Retrieved
15 September 2009
- "O'Keeffe - "the faraway" continued" (history), 2000, webpage:
- Associated Press, "Settlement Is Granted Over O'Keeffe Estate"
Times July 2, 1987. Sept. 6, 2007
- Anne Dingus, Texas Monthly, Georgia O'Keeffe. Reviewed Jan. 3, 2007.
- Vaughn W. Henry, Planned Giving Design Center, LLC, Establishing a Value is Important!, May 10,
2004. Reviewed Jan. 3, 2007.
- Lifetime Television's O'Keeffe, video previews.