10 things to know about Georgia O’Keeffe

10 things to know about Georgia O’Keeffe

We take a closer look at the life, loves and landscapes of one of the most significant artists of the 20th century — ‘the mother of American modernism’

  • 1
  • She was the daughter of a dairy farmer

One of the most sophisticated artists of the 20th century, Georgia O'Keeffe grew up in small-town Wisconsin and was named after her maternal grandfather, George Victor Totto, a Hungarian count. By the age of 10 she had decided to become an artist, but her traditional art education discouraged her and at 21 she abandoned the idea, assuming she would never distinguish herself in the strict realist tradition of her teachers.

  • 2
  • O’Keeffe was one of the first American pure abstract artists

She took up painting again in 1912 after four years as a commercial artist. Now aged 25, she attended a summer school at the University of Virginia. Her tutor introduced her to the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was influenced by studies of Japanese art, emphasising composition and design like the Post-Impressionists. 

  • 3
  • She got her first show by post

In late 1915 O’Keeffe posted a series of charcoal drawings to her friend Anita Pollitzer, who took them to Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer and owner of the 291 gallery in New York. He considered them the ‘purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while’. When O’Keeffe arrived at the gallery in April 1916 she discovered her work was already on view, but allowed the drawings to remain. Her first solo show took place at the gallery in April 1917, and included the watercolour on paper Blue I, painted in 1916.

  • 4
  • It was love at first sight between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz

They corresponded frequently, and on 10 June 1918 she moved to New York City. They began living together almost straight away, despite Stieglitz being 23 years her senior and already married. Through him she met many significant American modernists including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Edward Steichen, and Rebecca Salsbury James, whose Fire and Air is also offered in the American Art sale on 28 May. James, who was married to photographer Paul Strand, would later accompany O’Keefe on her momentous first trip to New Mexico in 1929 (see 8, below). 

...most of them nude studies. As well as being works of personal devotion his images were a conscious attempt to market O’Keeffe, linking her sexuality and her art. She became seen as a liberated, modern woman — and a media personality. 

  • 6
  • In August 1918 she first visited Lake George in the Hudson River Valley

The couple would spend part of every year at the Stieglitz family’s retreat nearby until 1929. It was an important landscape for O’Keeffe, its vast panorama and openness allowing her the space to experiment with colour and form, and between abstraction and representation. O’Keeffe often referred to Lake George as ‘perfect’. Her masterpiece of the period is Lake George Reflection, circa 1921-22, which she intended to be hung in both portrait and landscape form, so that it embodied both her abstract and representational painting. When it was first exhibited in 1923 at the Anderson Galleries it was hung vertically, encouraging comparisons to her magnified flower imagery, which she was exploring simultaneously. 

  • 7
  • She shunned Freudian interpretations of her abstract paintings

In part due to her Stieglitz-created public image, such interpretations had begun to attach themselves to her work by the mid-1920s. Consequently her art became more representational. In the summer of 1924 she began painting beds of blue and purple petunias at the Stieglitz’s country house, the flowers filling the canvas entirely. It led to her first large-scale flower painting, Petunia, No. 2 (1925). She also painted the New York skyline in works such as New York—Night (1926) and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York (1927), often from their marital home — the 13th floor of the Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, where the couple lived for 12 years.

  • 8
  • She fell in love with a mountain

O’Keeffe had been visiting New Mexico since 1929. After recuperating from a nervous breakdown in late 1932 she visited Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, for the first time in August 1934 and decided to live there, moving into a house on the property permanently in 1940.

It was there that she painted the view: wide open desert backed by the Cerro Pedernal mountain, as in Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds (1936). It became her favourite subject. ‘It's my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,’ she once explained. She received many distinguished visitors over the years, including Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Ansel Adams.

  • 9
  • She was the first woman to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

O’Keeffe’s reputation continued to grow, and she painted arrangements of found rocks and bones superimposed on a desert background, as in Summer Days (1936), now in the Whitney Museum, New York. She was feted in retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA, as well as in a catalogue of her work sponsored by the Whitney Museum.

  • 10
  • She continued to draw well into her nineties…

...despite beginning to suffer from macular degeneration in 1972, which left her with only peripheral vision. She continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984, assisted by a young potter called Juan Hamilton. Georgia O’Keeffe died on 6 March 1986. Her ashes were scattered at the top of Pedernal.