Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) Born in Wisconsin as Georgia Tottoo O’Keeffe, the American artist was already a living legend in the 1920s when she was only in her mid-thirties. Her versatility in the medium really makes her difficult-to-define, since she has been called both an ex
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Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986)

By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2020

What this Article is About

Born in Wisconsin as Georgia Tottoo O’Keeffe, the American artist was already a living legend in the 1920s when she was only in her mid-thirties. Her versatility in the medium really makes her difficult-to-define, since she has been called both an exponent of ‘precisionism’ (a smooth-but-sharp American approach prevalent in the 1920s with origins in cubism, futurism and ‘orphism’ – a French variant on cubism) as well as of modernism, surrealism and abstract art – seemingly difficult-to-reconcile approaches and techniques. So, O’Keeffe, who managed to combine an attention-to-detail with the abstract, is an artist who resists being compartmentalised. Though, despite this, she is sometimes simplistically referred to as ‘The Mother of Modernism’.

O'Keeffes Jimson Weed
O'Keeffes Rams Head
O'Keeffes Rotunda at University of Virginia

She enjoyed a very long career as a painter, being the most-highly-paid female artist in America during her lifetime though subsequently one of her works (‘Jimson Weed / White flower No. 1’) fetched a record of US.4 million in 2014 as the highest price achieved for a painting by a woman when it tripled the previous record for a female artist. Interestingly hitherto the auction record for an O’Keeffe work was just US.2 million, set at Christie’s in New York during 2001.

Sales records apart she is the target of perennial adulation in the USA where she has appeared on postage stamps, where her birthplace, home and studio have become tourist destinations, where she has been deemed a feminist icon and become the subject of a biopic in which Jeremy Irons played Alfred Stieflitz (her lover then husband, mentor, gallery-owner at ‘291’ in midtown Manhattan, a noted photographer and the titular head of the painting school with which O’Keffee is most associated) and where even a dinosaur has been named after her.

O'Keeffes portrait
O'Keeffes portrait
O'Keeffes portrait
O'Keeffes portrait

O’Keffee’s Humble (and Not-So-Humble) Origins

Born into an Irish-American family that numbered a Hungarian count amongst its ancestry on her mother’s side (and that mum was apparently known as ‘Tottoo’; hence the artist’s middle-name), Georgia O’Keffee was one of seven or 11 children (it depends on whom you believe) in a dairy-farming family. In fact her parents relocated to Virginia to go into concrete-block production, but it was a business that never took off so the father eventually went bust. Yet from this humble beginning, and perhaps because both grandmothers painted, little Georgia and two of her sisters (Ida and Anita) emerged as artists.

O'Keeffes New york street with moon
O'Keeffes Lake No 1
O'Keeffes Black mesa landscape

Training, Educational Career, Love-Life and Rise to Prominence

Young Georgia was taught initially by a water-colourist called Sara Mann. She continued to paint at two boarding-schools, then studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League of New York and the teacher-training college at the University of Columbia. Indeed, she started her career as an art teacher at a women’s college in South Carolina.

Whilst there in 1916 her experiments with charcoal were sent by Anita Pollitzer, a friend from New York, to Alfred Stieglitz whose gallery was nearby. She, O’Keffee, was 28 and beautiful. He was almost twice her age, married to somebody else at that time, a photographer and keen to snap her naked. But more importantly he was an art-gallery owner that showed the work of foreign modernists (America hitherto having none to speak of) Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse.

Stieglitz realised her potential and gave her a life-changing break the next year in 1917, the first of 22 solo shows in his New York gallery, but subsequently as her mentor encouraged her to develop her prodigious talent for the rest of his life. His discovery and promotion of her, and his sponsorship of her for her first year away from a classroom, allowed her to escape her life as an educator. Within a couple of years they were a couple and they were to remain so until he died in 1946 when she was 58 and he was 83. They were married in 1924. But he had affairs, notably with his studio assistant.

O'Keeffes Drawing XIII
O'Keeffes Blue and green music
O'Keeffes Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses

Eclectic Influences and that Feminism

Stieglitz and his gallery co-owner Edward Steichen, his ‘Stieglitz Circle’ (John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, George Seeley, Artur Dove, Arthur Beecher Carles and Charles Demuth) apart, O’Keffee was influenced by John Henry Vanderpoel (born Johannes [Jan] van der Poel), a notable figure-artist, when she was taught by him at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the University of Virginia it was Alon Bement, another figure-painter who sparked her interest. Arthur Wesley Dow imbued within her an entire Japanese-rooted ‘self-explorative’ philosophy though he was another painter as well as being a printmaker and photographer. O’Keffee was also taken by the work of Matisse and Rodin. And with the ability of photographer Paul Strand to intelligently use the camera like a magnifying-glass and crop photos. Some critics think she was influenced, too, by the Russian abstract painter and art theorist Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky. She was definitely influenced by Frida Kahlo. And by Joseph Fernand Henri Léger the French painter, sculptor and filmmaker. Lastly one should mention the impact on her of the precisionist Charles Sheeler (he coined the term, though it is also known as ‘Cubist-Realism’).

Stieglitz unintentionally prompted O’Keffee’s growth when she became aware of his affair with his much younger gallery-assistant only five years after he’d married O’Keffee. She then disappeared off into the New Mexico desert to be alone with her thoughts and to paint. (She was to move there permanently after her husband’s death.) Oddly many of the bones and flowers thereafter look like vaginas and breasts.

Despite staying with her husband for another 16 years, until his death, O’Keffee was never to bear children. Yet she had very strong opinions on the visceral influence of her sex on her art. Indeed she once said that ‘Woman feels the world differently than man feels it. The woman receives the world through her womb. Mind comes second’.

Subject-Matter and Scale

Although she began by using less colour and working on a smaller scale, as her ideas developed she used a stronger palette, focused on the nature that fascinated her, and worked on bigger canvases. Some like that below to the right were as big as 24 feet across - quite an undertaking for a woman who was by then 80 years old!

O'Keeffes Black Place Green
O'Keeffes Sky Above Clouds IV

Conclusion

In summary O’Keefe was an inspiration for today’s female artists. But, whatever your gender, all of us can admire her legacy. You can easily and affordably buy unframed prints of her work.

Try Georgia O'Keeffe | Tate for example.

You'll want to frame whatever you buy. Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.

EasyFrame is on 01234 856 501 and / or sales@EasyFrame.co.uk and they’ll always chat even if you don’t want to buy!

Article Posted: 18/12/2020 10:17:24

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