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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
Remembering her Wisconsin years, O’Keeffe once said defiantly, “I was not a favorite child, but I didn’t mind at all.”
Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in a cryptic autobiography of no more than a thousand words, published in 1976: “Where I was born and where and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” When she died in 1986 at the age of ninety-eight, in New Mexico, she had revealed little about her background. Unless O’Keeffe’s personal story is documented in her letters to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, which, following her instructions, remain closed to the public until 2011, we will never know precisely what experiences and ideas helped shape her life. O’Keeffe wanted people to focus exclusively on her paintings, which she insisted needed no analysis to be understood or appreciated. Art, she felt, transcended the limits and frustrations of personal life. In the end what she wanted most was to be left alone to paint the arid Western landscapes whose “wonderful emptiness” gave her the room that she needed to live.
Almost from the beginning of her career, O’Keeffe decided not to allow anything or anyone to deter her from becoming an independent artist. She sought to express her deepest desires through painting, rather than friendship, community, marriage, or children. O’Keeffe did not talk about her past, nor did she want others to write about her with critical detachment, and she tried to make it impossible for them to do so. Throughout her long life she maintained her freedom and her personal vision, but her pursuit of independence led also to loneliness and estrangement from family and friends. O’Keeffe’s protestations notwithstanding, where she was born and where and how she lived were crucial in determining the artist and person she became.
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, the second of seven children, was born on November 15, 1887, near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a town whose population was fewer than one thousand. After her parents, Francis O’Keeffe and Ida Totto, married, they combined the two families’ adjoining farms, and Georgia spent her early youth in a relatively idyllic setting. The family’s farm provided a good living, O’Keeffe remembered: “They raised all kinds of things there, even tobacco.” She said she had a “pleasant” childhood, but other comments reveal lingering familial resentments. Comparing herself with her older brother, Georgia wondered at a very early age, “Why doesn’t anyone think I’m beautiful?” and on another occasion said, “I was not a favorite child, but I didn’t mind at all.”
Although Georgia felt closer to her father, her mother’s influence may have been more decisive. While her father toiled on the farm, Ida O’Keeffe, who, like her daughter, was somewhat aloof and aristocratic, wanted to expose her children to a life of culture. She made certain that they got well-rounded educations, and she took Georgia and her sisters by buggy every Saturday to Sun Prairie, three and a half miles away, for art lessons. One day, when she was twelve, Georgia announced triumphantly to the daughter of the family’s washerwoman that she was going to be an artist when she grew up. In her autobiography O’Keeffe wrote that she did not know where she got her artist idea, assuming perhaps that acknowledging her family’s influence diminished the purity of the desire. Undoubtedly, her mother’s values and the example of her grand- mothers, both of whom painted flowers and fruit, had some influence. Still, in 1899 the notion that a young girl could grow up in the United States and become a self-supporting artist seemed preposterous.
In 1902 the O’Keeffes moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, leaving the older children behind to finish the school year. There the family went into a decline. Francis O’Keeffe’s three brothers had died of tuberculosis and, fearing for his own health, he wanted to escape the cold Wisconsin winters. So he had sold his farm and planned to go into business in a more temperate climate. Williamsburg, at the turn of the century, was a tired Southern town, whose dusty, unpaved streets and eighteenth-century houses reflected its backward-looking way of life. To say the least, Williamsburg was not hospitable to outsiders from the North or new business enterprises. Francis O’Keeffe’s grocery did not prosper, and within a few years his disappointed wife left him and moved to Charlottesville. She struggled to make ends meet in that university town by taking in boarders. A few years later her husband joined her in Charlottesville, where, after a long illness, she died in 1916. She was fifty-two years old and impoverished when tuberculosis killed her. Two years later, after trying to make a living doing odd jobs, Francis O’Keeffe died in an accident.