Georgia O’Keeffe, The Great 20th Century Painter

For a person who became one of the most celebrated and prolific painters of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe had a humble and quite ordinary start in life.

Red Poppy, 1927

Born in 1887 in the state of Wisconsin in the United States, her life began on the dairy farm of her Irish and Hungarian parents, along with her six siblings. Interestingly, despite her origins, and reflective of her early determination, by the age of 10, O’Keeffe had already declared her path in life would be in the direction of art. She began training in the subject as soon as it was possible.

After a family move to Virginia and graduating from school, the young artist enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago where she was ranked as one of the best students. Studying also in New York, where she first met photographer Alfred Stieglitz her future partner, here O’Keeffe won a scholarship to a summer school in Lake George. It was a significant area which would feature in many of her early artworks.

Charcoal Drawing XIII, 1915

In the years around 1910, O’Keeffe struggled with a period of ill health and the bankruptcy of her family which forced her into a role as a commercial artist. Once recovered, the young artist continued with her training and also took on a teaching post in art in the South Carolina Collage. Continuing to create herself, O’Keeffe utilised charcoal for several semi abstract drawings, work that would eventually end up in hands of an impressed Stieglitz. The work was soon exhibited at his gallery in New York.

Lake George Reflection, 1921

O’Keeffe began a lifelong love affair with nature, drawing inspiration from natural surroundings through which she expressed her emotions. In the same era, a romantic partnership with Stieglitz, who was 24 years older than the young artist, began. Her detailed paintings of plants and natural formations, sunsets and sunrises, in addition to landscapes, began in earnest into the 1920s and beyond. Her work also included cityscapes, particularly of New York where the artist viewed the world from her 30th floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel. Capturing the spirit of the age and promoted with the help of her lover, O’Keeffe’s work began to sell for high prices.

East River from the Sheldon Hotel, 1927

Spending the next years of her life, from 1929 onwards, between the skyscrapers of New York and the mountainous and desert wilderness of New Mexico, became the norm for the artist. While inspired to create many great painting, O’Keeffe’s psychological state was in crisis at times however and she endured a nervous breakdown. She remained in hospital for two months, while later receiving written encouragement from fellow artist Frida Kahlo, among others.

Letter from Frida Kahlo to Georgia after her nervous breakdown

O’Keeffe’s mental state was blamed on learning of her father’s extra marital affair. The artist was also suffering from the infidelity of her own husband and once well enough, she sought the wild landscape of the American South West as a form of refuge.

My Front Yard, 1941

In 1940, she bought a house at the Ghost Ranch, an isolated spot in the picturesque desert near Albuquerque. Fascinated by the ever changing light and mood of the area, O’Keeffe soon made herself at home. In the decade of the 1940s, the artist had two one-woman retrospectives, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1946. The latter occurred in the same year that Stieglitz passed away. O’Keeffe continued to paint and exhibit for the rest of her years at the Ranch.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1, 1932

While many critics asserted a belief that O’Keeffe’s work incorporating flowers suggested erotic vulva imagery, the artist always denied the claim. While also acclaimed as a ‘great feminist painter’,  the artist also detached herself from any such labels, stating her sex was irrelevant to her work. She was, nevertheless, much celebrated by feminists, including fellow artists Judy Chicago and also Mary Beth Edelson who reflected O’Keeffe in her Some Living American Women Artists (1972). It was a reworking of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper featuring great women artists of the day, including O’Keeffe in the central position, occupied in the previous work by the Christ figure.

Mary Beth Edelson’s artwork Some Living American Women Artists (1972)
Black Iris, 1926

Becoming frailer in her later years and enduring the loss of her eyesight to a degree, caused the artist to cease her painting work. O’Keeffe died in 1989 at the age of 98. Her legacy as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century has continued to gain momentum, however. Her determination to succeed, her obvious talent and celebrated reception is certainly worthy of such status.

The Beyond, 1972

As the artists herself once stated …..

“The men liked to put me down as one of the best women painters. I think I’m one of the best painters”

– Georgia O’Keeffe

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