The Real Georgia O’Keeffe

The art of Georgia O’Keeffe has been well known for eight decades in this country and for many years has been attaining similar prominence abroad. More than 500 examples of her works are in over 100 public collections in Asia, Europe, and North and Central America. In addition, since her work was first exhibited in New York in 1916, it has been included in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions organized around the world.

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) was an American artist. She was best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes. O’Keeffe has been recognized as the “Mother of American modernism”

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most significant and intriguing artists of the twentieth century, known internationally for her boldly innovative art. Her distinct flowers, dramatic cityscapes, glowing landscapes, and images of bones against the stark desert sky are iconic and original contributions to American Modernism.

Her Life Her Art Her Houses

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887,  on a wheat farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents grew up together as neighbors; her father Francis Calixtus O’Keeffe was Irish, and her mother Ida Totto was of Dutch and Hungarian heritage. Georgia, the second of seven children, was named after her Hungarian maternal grandfather George Totto.

O’Keeffe’s mother, who had aspired to become a doctor, encouraged her children to become well-educated. As a child, O’Keeffe developed a curiosity about the natural world and an early interest in becoming an artist, which her mother encouraged by arranging lessons with a local artist. Art appreciation was a family affair for O’Keeffe: her two grandmothers and two of her sisters also enjoyed painting.

O’Keeffe continued to study art, as well as academic subjects at Sacred Heart Academy, a strict and exclusive high school in Madison, Wisconsin. While her family relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia in 1902, O’Keeffe lived with her aunt in Wisconsin and attended Madison High School. She joined her family in 1903 when she was 15 and already a budding artist driven by an independent spirit.

In Williamsburg, O’Keeffe attended Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school, where she was well-liked and stood out as individual, who dressed and acted differently than other students. She also became known as a talented artist and was the art editor of the school yearbook.

In 1905, O’Keeffe began her serious formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League of New York, but she felt constrained by her lessons that focused on recreating or copying what was in nature. In 1908, unable to fund further education, she worked for two years as a commercial illustrator, and then spent seven years between 1911 and 1918 teaching in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina. During that time, she studied art during the summers between 1912 and 1914 and was introduced to the principles and philosophies of Arthur Wesley Dow, who espoused created works of art based upon personal style, design, and interpretation of subjects, rather than trying to copy or represent them. This caused a major change in the way she felt about and approached art, as seen in the beginning stages of her watercolors from her studies at the University of Virginia and more dramatically in the charcoal drawings that she produced in 1915 that led to total abstraction.

Dow’s emphasis on composition and design offered O’Keeffe an alternative to realism. She experimented for two years, while she taught art in South Carolina and west Texas. Seeking to find a personal visual language through which she could express her feelings and ideas,  she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings in 1915 that represented a radical break with tradition and made O’Keeffe one of the very first American artists to practice pure abstraction.

O’Keeffe mailed some of these highly abstract drawings to a friend in New York City, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz. An art dealer and internationally known photographer, he was the first to exhibit her work in 1916. He would eventually become O’Keeffe’s husband. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe was recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists, known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers—an essentially American image of modernity—as well as flowers.

In the summer of 1929, O’Keeffe made the first of many trips to northern New Mexico. The stark landscape, distinct indigenous art, and unique regional style of adobe architecture inspired a new direction in O’Keeffe’s artwork. For the next two decades she spent part of most years living and working in New Mexico. She made the state her permanent home in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death. O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings coincided with a growing interest in regional scenes by American Modernists seeking a distinctive view of America. Her simplified and refined representations of this region express a deep personal response to the high desert terrain.

Georgia O’Keeffe owned two homes in the Chama River valley north of Santa Fe. She bought the first one at the Ghost Ranch in 1940 and the second one in the village of Abiquiu in 1945. In both places, she made the homes her own, suited to her art and life and she occupied both until 1984, when she moved to Santa Fe. The Museum owns and preserves these historic properties. The Abiquiu Home and Studio is open for tours by appointment.

Approximately 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the Ghost Ranch house is surrounded by the stunning landscape that inspired her art for more than 40 years.  Owned and cared for by the Museum, the Ghost Ranch home is not currently open to the public.

The 5, 000-square-foot compound in Abiquiu was in ruins in 1945 when she first saw it. For the next four years, O’Keeffe supervised its restoration, which was carried out by her friend, Maria Chabot. The house was surrounded by a wall which enclosed a large irrigated garden, allowing her to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. At the center of the home was a patio with a large wooden door, which excited the artist’s imagination and motivated her to buy the property. To obtain a view of the Chama River Valley, O’Keeffe converted a stable and buggy house at the edge of the mesa into her studio and bedroom. With the addition of plate glass windows, O’Keeffe gained spectacular views of the ever-changing color of the cottonwood trees below and the road that meandered through the valley.

She moved from New York to make New Mexico permanently in 1949, and lived at either Abiquiu or Ghost Ranch until 1984,  when she moved to Santa Fe.

In the 1950s, O’Keeffe began to travel internationally. She created paintings that evoked a sense of the spectacular places she visited, including the mountain peaks of Peru and Japan’s Mount Fuji. At the age of seventy-three she embarked on a new series focused on the clouds in the sky and the rivers below.

Suffering from macular degeneration and discouraged by her failing eyesight, O’Keeffe painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. But O’Keeffe’s will to create did not diminish with her eyesight. In 1977, at age ninety, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”

Late in life, and almost blind, she enlisted the help of several assistants to enable her to again create art.  In these works she returned to favorite visual motifs from her memory and vivid imagination.

Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe, on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.

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