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‘Let Them All Be Damned-I’ll Do As I Please’
In a career that made her one of the greatest American artist of the century, Georgia O’Keeffe claimed to have done it all by herself—without influence from family, friends, or fellow artists. The real story is less romantic though just as extraordinary.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
Georgia was insulated from the worst effects of her family’s misfortunes. When she joined her parents in Virginia in 1903, they sent her to Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school some two hundred miles to the southwest. At Chatham she began to develop the idiosyncratic personal style that remained her hallmark for the rest of her life. She drew her hair back and, perhaps because she did not have money for any others, wore loose-fitting, austere clothes, often all black—a memorable contrast with the ruffles and bows of her Southern classmates. Many thought she looked masculine. Nevertheless, Georgia was accepted and nurtured at Chatham. Her classmates admired her spunk and courage, and the school’s principal and art teacher, Elizabeth May Willis, recognized and fostered her talent.
After Georgia graduated from Chatham in 1905, Ida O’Keeffe decided to send her to the Art Institute of Chicago; she could live with relatives there and perhaps establish herself in a way Ida had not been able to do in her own life. Undoubtedly her family thought she would become an art teacher. At the Art Institute, Georgia earned exceptionally high marks and particularly appreciated the instruction of her composition teacher, John Vanderpoel. His emphasis on the importance of meticulous draftsmanship, she later said, always impressed her, even though, in her future work, she seldom painted the human form. She was always more comfortable with things than with people.
Returning to Williamsburg in the summer, O’Keeffe contracted typhoid, which kept her from going back to Chicago in the fall. After a long convalescence she decided in 1907 to attend the Art Students League in New York City. Its faculty included William Merritt Chase, the eminent and still highly regarded portraitist and still-life painter. O’Keeffe, who grasped her teacher’s method of expressing detail simply through the use of “paint as paint,” as she put it, won a prize and an invitation to attend a summer school for a derivative still life of a dead rabbit beside a copper pot.
Stieglitz felt that American artists could not imitate European styles and expect their work to shape life here.
“O’Keeffe was a popular student at the Art Students League, where she was nicknamed Patsy by her classmates. (Her heritage was Irish Catholic on her father's side and Hungarian Protestant on her mother’s.) She was courted eagerly by the older male students, including Eugene Speicher, who later became a well-known artist. He was particularly fascinated by her and wanted to paint her portrait. One day he blocked her way to class and demanded she consent to his wish; annoyed, she demanded he move. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” he said. “I’m going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.” He promised to give her the portrait, and she consented to sit for him.
The next day, while O’Keeffe was again posing for Speicher (so that he could also have a portrait of her), someone interrupted to suggest that they go downtown to 291, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz, whom the students knew as a “great talker,” was showing fifty-eight drawings by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Rodin’s abstract sketches had caused a sensation in the provincial American art world of the day, and all the teachers at the Art Students League recommended seeing them, if only for a good laugh.
O’Keeffe remembered that Rodin’s “drawings were curved lines and scratches with a few watercolor washes....” She later wrote that her “teachers at the League thought that Stieglitz might just be fooling the public with the name Rodin, or that Rodin might be fooling both Stieglitz and the public with such drawings.” To O’Keeffe, as well as to most art critics in 1908, the Rodins “were just a lot of scribbles” and “of no interest.” Also of no interest was the animated discussion dominated by the man she was to marry sixteen years later. “The conversation was heated and violent,” she recalled. To escape it, “I went to the end of the smallest room.”