Georgia O’Keeffe had exceptionally keen powers of observation and with great finesse with her paintbrush, recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light that brought her paintings to life and attracted a wide audience. She stayed true to her vision based on finding essential abstract forms in nature and was unshaken by the shifting trends of art around her.
O’Keeffe explored flowers, landscapes, and bones as her primary subjects throughout her decades-long career. She was inspired by nature around her in the places she lived.
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, US. She grew up with six siblings receiving art lessons at home. Her teachers at school cultivated her talent to draw and paint.
O’Keeffe received art training at the Art Institute of Chicago school (1905), the Art Students League of New York (1907–8), the University of Virginia (1912), and Columbia University’s Teachers College, New York (1914–16). Georgia became a teacher and taught art in various elementary schools, high schools, and colleges in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina from 1911 to 1918. At the same time, she created remarkable charcoal drawings that shaped her career.
Georgia O’Keeffe was the first female artist to gain respect in the New York art scene. She is often regarded by art critics as one of the most important and original American artists who shaped the modernist age. Her works are still highly popular among the general public.
Relationship with Alfred Stieglitz
O’Keeffe got her big break Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer and photographer showed her works in his 291 New York gallery. She had mailed her highly abstract drawings to her friend in New York who then showed them to Stieglitz. He was pleased with the drawings and exclaimed that a woman painter could be as good as the men. He was the first to exhibit her work in 1916 and would go on to give her an annual solo show until his death.
Stieglitz convinced her to quit teaching and move to New York and be a full-time artist. He promised her financial support and promoted her work as well. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz got married in 1924.
Beginning in 1924, O’Keeffe painted magnified close-ups of flowers, bringing the viewer right into the picture. She would enlarge the tiniest petals to fill an entire canvas, emphasizing their shapes, colors, and lines which made them appear almost abstract when they were her observations of nature. The daring style set her reputation as an innovative modernist artist.
Stieglitz promoted her paintings of flowers and bones as suggestive and erotic. The critics gave overwhelmingly Freudian reviews of her exhibitions. O’Keeffe strongly objected to this gendered interpretation of her work. Her work after the death of her husband celebrated clear skies and desert landscapes. She would carry herself differently to move away from the sexualized public image Stieglitz had created of her.
Common among artists in America in the 1920s was a painting style characterized by smooth, sharply defined lines. This was the precisionist movement. Its artworks are characterized by dynamic compositions, unexpected viewpoints and angles, and sharp focus.
The common subjects in the movement included skylines, buildings, and machinery, the industrial landscape of factories, and the country landscape. O’Keeffe was among the pioneers of the movement with paintings of New York city scrapers and New Mexico country landscape paintings. The precisionist art was not social commentary; it was just art. It kept the viewer at arms- length; the artist seemed detached from the scenes and was always devoid of human activities and emotions as is seen in most of O’Keeffe’s works
Throughout her active years, the flower was a motif that Georgia O’Keeffe always returned to, as artists always returned to their favorite themes. O’Keeffe would say that the color and the form of the flower were far more important than the subject itself. Feminist critics over the years have praised O’Keeffe’s work for capturing feminist themes way ahead of its time. Over the decades, O’Keeffe painted more than 200 images of flowers. She focused mainly on the internal view of the flower. Despite her objections, many present-day critics argue that the artist seemed to reference reproduction and sexuality in her work. While it is hard to conclusively say what O’Keeffe intended to symbolize, the flowers remain her most iconic and recognized work.
Jimson Weed is as the largest of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings. The artist placed the four blossoms in an exuberant design that repeats the tight rhythm of the pinwheel-shaped plant. She emphasized the beauty of her subjects with a light, restricted palette.
O’Keeffe’s visit to New Mexico in 1929 rejuvenated her creativity. She was fascinated by the desert landscape and began painting it. She made abstracted takes of the area’s topography. She ended up buying a home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lived till her death. The paintings of New Mexico happened at a period when there was a growing interest in the regional scene by American modernists seeking a distinct view of the nation.
While out in New Mexico, O’Keeffe collected skulls which she went on to paint. The paintings were more abstract, giving little to no context. They, however, have a historical connotation. America experienced a great drought in the 1930s that left behind skulls dotting the landscape. She often would add a blossom which gave the paintings a surreal quality. For O’Keeffe, the animal skull and vibrant flowers symbolized the cycle of life and death.
Cityscapes & Skyscrapers
New York City was pivotal in O’Keeffe’s career as a painter. She produced many a cityscape portrait. Her city painting looks like something captured by a photographer.
O’Keeffe’s abstract art is filled with fluid curvilinear forms, reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Oversexualized interpretations of her abstractions coupled with the limited marker for abstrat art made to take a break from pure abstraction.
Throughout her lifelong quest to communicate a feeling, O’Keeffe innovated many important aesthetic styles. Through her abstract compositions, she placed importance on all areas of the picture plane. She layered various interpretations into an almost flattening design. She carefully balanced realism and abstraction.
O’Keeffe’s painting of New York skyscrapers which bodied American modernity, and the radical paintings of flowers made her one of America’s most important and successful artists.
O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party, the most radical feminist organization at the time in the United States. She rejected the essentialist notion that women inherently possess particular character traits. She retired in 1984 because of her failing eyesight. She died at her home in Santa Fe in 1986, at the age of 98.
Her illustrated autobiography Georgia O’Keeffe (1976) was a best seller. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico is dedicated to the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her home is part of this. She received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1977 and 1985 and the Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan. The National Gallery organized an exhibition in 1987 to celebrate the centennial of her birth.
- “Artist Info.” Nga.gov, 2020, www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.2311.html.
- “Georgia O’Keeffe.” Henri Matisse, 2017, www.georgiaokeeffe.net/.
- “Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2015, www.okeeffemuseum.org/.
- Metmuseum.org, 2019, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geok/hd_geok.htm.