Georgia OKeeffe poses for a portrait August 2, 1968 at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Photo © Arnold NewmanGetty Images

‘I figure that Georgia put her trust in me for a reason’

In the latter years of her long life Georgia O’Keeffe formed a keen friendship with Barney A. Ebsworth, even hosting the collector’s second wedding at Ghost Ranch. Two O'Keeffe works from Ebsworth’s collection are offered in New York in November 

In 1971, Barney A. Ebsworth (1934-2018) arranged a meeting with Charles Buckley, at that time the director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. It was a conversation that led the entrepreneur to redirect the focus of his nascent art collection, from 17th-century Dutch pictures and Japanese scroll paintings, towards American Modernism.

Following the meeting, Ebsworth immediately began immersing himself in research and attending auctions across the United States. In 1973 he travelled to the estate sale of the art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, who in 1926 had established the Downtown Gallery in New York, and been a tireless champion of contemporary living American artists, including, famously, Georgia O'Keeffe.

In his autobiography, Ebsworth described the sale; he lost out on a John Marin watercolour to John D. Rockefeller but placed the winning bid for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black, White and Blue, paying $47,000 for the picture. The work was painted in 1930 at a time when O’Keeffe had begun spending months in New Mexico, away from New York City and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).

After the sale, Ebsworth was introduced to Lloyd Goodrich, the director of the Whitney Museum and curator of O’Keeffe’s 1970 retrospective. ‘Young man,’ Goodrich announced to Ebsworth, ‘in my opinion you’ve bought O’Keeffe’s greatest picture.’

Barney Ebsworth turned down two initial invitations to visit Georgia OKeeffe in New Mexico. ‘I think she was baffled that I kept saying no when everyone else was clamouring to meet her,’ he recalled

Barney Ebsworth turned down two initial invitations to visit Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico. ‘I think she was baffled that I kept saying no when everyone else was clamouring to meet her,’ he recalled

Not long after Ebsworth had bought Black, White and Blue, he received a phone call from Doris Bry, who at the time acted as an agent for O’Keeffe. Bry had discovered who had acquired the painting through Charles Buckley. ‘Georgia would like you to come down to Abiquiú and meet her,’ she explained.

As an intensely private man and one who respected the privacy of others, Ebsworth initially declined. When another invitation came the following year, his answer was the same. It was only after the third invitation, by which time Ebsworth realised that O’Keeffe was 87 years old, that he accepted. ‘I think she was baffled that I kept saying no when everyone else was clamouring to meet her,’ he recalled years later.

‘I don’t believe in marriage,’ O’Keeffe confided to Ebsworth’s new bride, Patricia. ‘I'm just doing this for Barney’  

The collector confessed that at first he felt intimidated by O'Keeffe’s commanding presence, but the pair soon bonded and Ebsworth began making regular trips to her home, Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico. There was, he said, an unspoken agreement that he would always do the travelling.

On Ebsworth’s fourth visit, O’Keeffe opened up on the subject of Black, White and Blue. ‘[It] was a message to a friend,’ she told him. ‘If he saw it, he didn’t know it was to him and wouldn’t have known what it said. And neither do I.’

‘Georgia,’ the straight-talking Ebsworth replied, ‘I read T.S. Eliot in college. I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Music — Pink and Blue No. 1, 1918. Oil on canvas. 35 x 29 in (88.9 x 73.7 cm). Seattle Art Museum. Accession 2000.161. Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth. Photo Paul Macapia Artwork © 2018 Georgia OKeeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Music — Pink and Blue No. 1, 1918. Oil on canvas. 35 x 29 in (88.9 x 73.7 cm). Seattle Art Museum. Accession 2000.161. Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth. Photo: Paul Macapia Artwork: © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Over the following years, Ebsworth acquired four more of O’Keeffe’s works, including a 1919 picture called Music — Pink and Blue No.1, which the artist herself suggested he hang next to Black, White and Blue. Ebsworth eventually gifted the former to the Seattle Art Museum; the latter he donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The fifth O’Keeffe work that Ebsworth purchased was a portrait of the artist Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). He happened to be looking through O’Keeffe’s latest monograph when his phone rang. It was Doris Bry, calling out of the blue. ‘Whom does this belong to,’ Ebsworth asked of the charcoal portrait, which he was looking at for the very first time.

‘It belongs to Georgia and it's hanging in front of me this very minute,’ Bry answered. 

‘Would it be for sale?’ asked Ebsworth.

‘It would be for you,’ she replied. Ebsworth negotiated an on-the-spot deal for the work, which is being offered by Christie’s on 13 November.

Georgia OKeeffe (1887-1986), Beauford Delaney, executed in 1943. Charcoal on paper. 24¾ x 18½ in (62.9 x 47 cm). Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in An American Place The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia OKeeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Beauford Delaney, executed in 1943. Charcoal on paper. 24¾ x 18½ in (62.9 x 47 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ebsworth was struck by O’Keeffe’s skill as a portraitist. Apart from a handful of nudes and figure studies from 1916-18, she only made portraits of two subjects during her adult career — including Beauford Delaney.

O’Keeffe once said she only drew Delaney because she felt sorry for him. Despite his exceptional talent as a painter, Delaney’s race and homosexuality made him an outsider. ‘He posed for others because he had no heat in his studio,’ O'Keeffe recalled. Yet in the portrait, Delaney's enigmatic smile suggests this pair of outsiders shared something of a bond.

Delaney was also a frequent visitor to An American Place, the gallery founded by Alfred Stieglitz. Indeed, it was there that O’Keeffe and Delaney first met. An American Place closed closed in 1946 after Stieglitz’s death, but its place in the history of 20th-century American art was recognised by Ebsworth, who named the Jim Olson-designed Seattle home he built specifically to house his collection of Modernist art after the famous gallery.

Georgia OKeeffe (1887-1986), Horn and Feather, painted in 1937. Oil on canvas. 9 x 14 in (22.9 x 35.6 cm). Estimate $700,000-1,000,000. Offered in An American Place The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia OKeeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Horn and Feather, painted in 1937. Oil on canvas. 9 x 14 in (22.9 x 35.6 cm). Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. Offered in An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1978 Ebsworth purchased another O’Keeffe work, Horn and Feather  (1937), pictured above. The work had been sold at Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York in 1953, before being bought by Bry. Acquiring the picture, which is also included in the upcoming Christie’s auction, helped Ebsworth expand his collection of O'Keeffe’s work to encompass her abstract, figurative and still-life periods.

Ebsworth continued to visit O’Keeffe well into her old age — she was 98 when she died in 1986 — and their friendship deepened. He asked O’Keeffe if he could marry his second wife, Patricia, in secrecy at Ghost Ranch, with the artist acting as their witness. ‘You’re the only person I know who could be the maid of honour and the best man,’ he told her. On the day of their wedding, O’Keeffe confided in Patricia, ‘I don’t believe in marriage, I’m just doing this for Barney.’

They continued to stay in touch regularly, talking for at least an hour on the phone sometimes, but O’Keeffe passed away not long after the wedding. ‘I’ve always tried to be circumspect about the most personal details of her life,’ Ebsworth revealed in his autobiography. ‘I figure that she put her trust in me for a reason.’

Ebsworth credited O’Keeffe with changing his mind about only collecting works by deceased artists. ‘As I grew older, I realised that knowing the creators of art had value too,’ he wrote in 2012. ‘Now I wish I had met all of the artists through the years; but Georgia will always be special to me. I miss her.’