When one thinks of American painters, names like Warhol and Pollock readily come to mind. Perhaps, if one is a fan of landscape painting, the commercial success story, Thomas Kinkade, might spark.

Each of these names and others are attached to a distinctive painting style that shaped the art culture in 20th Century America and, to an extent, western art as a whole.

One particularly influential painter is usually dismissed; often, she is not even considered at all: Georgia O’Keeffe.

This American painter with a distinctly Irish surname, so dramatically photogenic that she was a work of art in herself, quietly occupied desert spaces and painted what she saw.

Her mastery of colour and nuance; the sensuality depicted in her portrayals of flowers in close-up was at the centre of a polarization of artistic opinion.

Disdaining figurative elements altogether, she repeatedly averred that her work was purely representational – no matter how often the lushness of her lilies was said to be symbolic of genitalia.

Frail in body but strong in spirit, cultured and socially connected but choosing the life of a bohemian; through her art, Georgia was proclaimed a mother while being a mother to none.

Today, Superprof examines the mass of contradictions that was Georgia O’Keeffe.

Humble Beginnings

an example of precisionist painting
This deceptively simple representation of what Georgia called My Shanty is an example of Precisionism By Georgia O'Keeffe via Wikipedia

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, the second of seven children in her family, was born in 1887, in a Wisconsin farmhouse. She was named after her maternal grandfather, a Hungarian count named George Totto.

Life on the dairy farm was busy but special emphasis was placed on the children’s education. When Georgia was of school age, she was bundled off to the Town Hall School in Sun Prairie to learn the Three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.

Additionally, Mom saw to it that her girls were educated in the arts; she sent daughters Ida, Anita and Georgia to Sara Mann, a watercolour painter of some renown in their small township.

By age 10, little Georgia knew she wanted to be an artist.

But first, she had to complete her basic education. She boarded at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison and, when the family relocated to Virginia so Dad could pursue a business interest, Georgia finished her secondary education at Chatham Episcopalian where, once again, she was a live-in student.

Casting about for the best art study programmes, Georgia settled on The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she consistently placed at the top of her class.

After a bout of typhoid fever that set her studies back a whole year, she moved to New York City in search of a broader art curriculum. She found it at The Art Student’s League, a school founded with the artist in mind: no set curriculum, flexible classes and, most importantly, reasonably priced.

Her oil on canvas, Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, won her a scholarship to their summer school in Lake George, where students could practise ‘plein air’ painting – painting outdoors.

Georgia gladly accepted the boost that scholarship provided but, deep inside, she felt a sense of disquiet.

That prize-winning still life she had painted smacked of impressionism. Georgia could not help but notice that, overall, her studies emphasised mimicry; essentially reproducing likenesses of what was already there. That wasn’t the direction she wanted to go in.

She was absolved of travelling further down that path when her parents’ financial and health difficulties translated into her no longer being able to pay for classes. She returned to Chicago and took a job as a commercial artist.

That might have been the end of Georgia’s art education except for the fact that, once again stricken with a disease – measles, this time, she had to abandon her post. She returned to the family fold to convalesce.

For four years, Georgia did not paint at all; the smell of turpentine made her sick.

Georgia O’Keeffe is one female artist among many; discover a world full of remarkable women painters...

Georgia felt ill at the smells in her studio
How could Georgia paint when the very smell of her studio sickened her? Image by Bilge Can Gürer from Pixabay

Entering the Art World in Earnest

The strong smell of mineral spirits might have sickened her but Georgia had no problem with charcoal.

Now teaching art at Columbia College in South Carolina, Georgia satisfied her need to create art by sketching charcoal abstractions.

Today, art historians all aver that those drawings were all highly innovative but, with no progressive artistic circle to critique her work at the time – and apparently not trusting her own judgment, Georgia sought the opinion of her friend and former classmate in New York, Anna Pollitzer.

Blown away: to be thoroughly impressed, overwhelmed and excited.

Had that idiom existed in 1916, Anna would have thus described her reactions to each depiction Georgia had sent.

She repaired posthaste to the 291 Gallery, where photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz saw it as his calling to promote the best, brightest most innovative of artistic expressions.

He immediately took possession of Georgia’s sketches, mounting them in a prominent location, where they were sure to be seen. Some weeks later, she strode into his gallery, furious and demanding that he take her charcoals down. He photographed her.

A partnership in art was born.

At first, because he was married, Alfred was just her patron. She moved back to New York and into the studio he provided her with.

Later, as she posed for him, as he photographed her, critiqued and sold her work, they became romantically involved, ultimately marrying, once he had divorced his wife.

Through him, Georgia became acquainted with some of the biggest names in American art: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Paul Strand...

Strangely enough, though a contemporary of Mary Cassatt, their paths never crossed.

It was Paul’s and Alfred’s photography that triggered in Georgia a desire to explore the most delicate organisms in the most minute detail possible. Her first stab at precisionism, the forerunner of modernism, yielded The Green Apple, formerly titled Green Apple on Black Plate.

Other works from that period include:

  • Blue and Green Music
  • Oriental Poppies
  • Red Canna – several paintings, some in watercolours and some in oil paint
  • Petunia
  • Jimson Weed
  • Black Iris III

Regrettably, even though she painted many subjects and employed different media, Georgia is renown for her flower paintings and what they might represent. One art historian even averred that one tableau in particular must represent a female in bloom!

Georgia adamantly refuted any such correlations, maintaining she was only painting flowers in close-up.

Although a contributor to the abstract expressionism art movement, Helen Frankenthaler never had to defend her work from such near-libellous claims.

Georgia never painted water lilies
Although lilies were a favourite subject, unlike Van Gogh, Georgia never painted water lillies Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Georgia O’Keeffe, a Mother of Art Movements

Albert Stieglitz worked tirelessly to promote his wife’s art. He featured her canvases in several New York Galleries and a few art museums. He even arranged for a New York Museum to host a retrospective of her work in 1927.

By far the greatest boost to her reputation was his dubious claim that an anonymous buyer in France had purchased no fewer than six of her calla lily tableaux. While her work certainly did make an impact in Paris, it is doubtful that a lone art collector spent quite the amount he boasted to have received.

Nevertheless, the claim made for good publicity and, from then on, Georgia could command a much higher price for her work.

It would seem that his tireless efforts to promote her work must mean that he was wholly devoted to her.

Sadly, his extramarital affair plunged Georgia into a deep depression that left her unable to complete a commission to paint a mural at Radio City Music Hall. She fled the city, finding solace in the wide-open spaces of New Mexico.

Unlike Frida Kahlo, who retaliated to husband’s extramarital activities with affairs of her own, Albert’s ongoing affair drove Georgia to a nervous breakdown that left her unable to paint for over a year.

Finally pulling herself together after a recuperative sojourn in the Bahamas, she returned to New Mexico, purchased a house in a small town and set to work with renewed vigour.

One year after being back to her old self, her husband died. She spent the next three years in New York, settling his affairs after which she permanently relocated to the property she had just purchased. There, she worked continuously until her death, at 98 years old.

When her eyes failed her – effectively leaving her unable to paint, she reinvented herself as a sculptor through the tutelage of one John Hamilton. Now, rather than seeing her creations come to life, she could feel them taking shape beneath her hands.

Georgia O’Keeffe does not receive near the esteem and publicity as American artists who are male – unlike some of them, there are no web pages dedicated exclusively to her art.

Still, one can find her canvases, depicting building, flowers and still lifes in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, of course, in New Mexico, where she is heralded as a native daughter.

Now discover the life and works of Artemisia Gentileschi, the Grande Dame of female artists...

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