Georgia O’Keeffe was born in the American mid-west on the rolling plains of Sun Prairie in Wisconsin. She spent the first twelve years of her life on her parents’ farm surrounded by golden fields of corn. This isolated existence had a profound effect on her later life and painting. Occasionally, to break the long winters of seclusion, Georgia and her younger sisters had lessons in painting and drawing at the nearby town of Sun Prairie.
In 1903 the family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Two years later Georgie enrolled as a student at the Art Institute in Chicago. But at the age of 21 she suffered a severe bout of typhoid fever and stayed at home for several months. However, in 1907 she continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York. Encouraged to paint a picture a day and focus she focused on colour and texture. Unfortunately, the teaching was old fashioned, concentrating on copying old masters. It wasn’t long before she sought out something more inspiring.
Meeting Alfred Steiglitz
Georgia was 25 years old in 1908 when she paid her first visit to the 291-gallery in New York, run by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The gallery displayed avant-garde works by Matisse, Cezanne and others, mostly unknown at the time to the wider American Public. Here she first saw drawings by the sculptor Rodin which greatly influenced her own charcoal drawings. Later, she won a scholarship for producing the best still life in her class but didn’t pursue it, because she was so short of money. Instead, she moved to Chicago to earn a living as commercial artist.
In 1914 Georgia enrolled at the Columbia University Teachers’ College in New York. She studied under the inspirational artist and teacher, Arthur Dow. He opened her eyes to abstract forms of expression and to the work of the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. She joined the National Women’s Party and remained a frequent visitor to the latest exhibitions at Stieglitz’s 291-gallery. In May 1916 Stieglitz exhibited a series of her charcoal drawings. Later that year Georgia moved to Texas, to head the art department at West Texas State National College.
In 1917 Alfred Stieglitz organised Georgia’s first solo exhibition at the 291-gallery comprising of charcoal drawings and watercolours. In the autumn she travelled to Colorado with her sister passing through New Mexico for the first time. The landscape of New Mexico would fascinate her for the rest of her life. With Alfred Stieglitz’s financial support, she moved back to New York in 1918 to devote herself entirely to painting. During the next few years she became increasingly close to Stieglitz. Summers were spent at his family property in Lake George, and winters back in New York City, in a small studio owned by Stieglitz’s sister.
In 1921 51 paintings by Georgia and 61 photographs by Stieglitz, most of which were nude portraits of Georgia, were exhibited at the Anderson galleries in New York. As a result, Georgia found herself thrust into the limelight as Stieglitz’s model and muse and not an artist in her own right. She didn’t like that. The following year a second solo exhibition of Georgia’s work, organised by Stieglitz, was a great success. Her reputation was established as an unusual and very talented woman. Later, in 1924, Georgia, aged 37 married Alfred Stieglitz, who was 23 years her senior. It was around this time, she began to paint the close-up, magnified images of flowers that became the hall mark of her work.
Move to New Mexico
1929 saw Georgia travel to New Mexico to paint and this pattern would be repeated for the next few summers. The paintings produced during these years explored the landscapes and motifs of the desert. The paintings were exhibited annually at An American Place, Stieglitz’s new gallery in New York. In 1932 Georgia had a nervous breakdown and spent some months away from painting convalescing in Bermuda. But in 1934 the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art bought its first Georgia O’Keeffe painting. She spent her first summer at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico before, in 1940, buying a house and some land in nearby Abiquiú.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a major retrospective exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in 1946. It was the first solo exhibition they had given to a woman. In July of that year Alfred Stieglitz suffered a heart attack. Georgia immediately returned to New York, but he died 4 days later aged 82. Georgia moved permanently to New Mexico a couple of years later. At the age of 66 in 1952, she began to explore the world, making her first trip to Europe, followed by trips to Peru, the far east, India and Japan.
This doggedly determined woman went white water rafting down the Colorado river with a group of friends when aged 74. And when at home in Abiquiú, she still painted from 6 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock at night. During this period she was elected a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Association for outstanding American artists. This was just one of many distinctions that she had already received.
1970 saw her largest retrospective exhibition to date, at the Whitney Museum of American art in New York. Her work was now available to a new, younger generation. In her mid 80’s, with her eyesight deteriorating, she met a young artist, Juan Hamilton, a potter. For the rest of her life he became her assistant, encouraging her to experiment with clay and continue to create paintings. Interestingly, many artists sought her advice, yet Hamilton was the only one with whom she shared her vast experience. In 1986 at the age of 98 Georgia O’Keeffe died.
To paraphrase her friend Ansel Adams, ‘She’s was a great artist, nobody can look at a painting of her’s without being deeply affected, her mystique endures.’