September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
In 1908 Alfred Stieglitz was forty-four years old and on the verge of helping instigate a revolution in the American visual arts. He already had pioneered the development of photography as a fine art by publishing a handsome quarterly called Camera Work and by taking spectacular photographs, including The Hand of Man and The Steerage. They demonstrated successfully how the camera could at once capture a personal vision and make a universal statement about life in America. In 1905, with the help of the painter and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, Stieglitz founded a gallery to show the new photography and, beginning in 1907, to promote modern art. Before 1913, at 291 and in Camera Work, he introduced to skeptical, frequently hostile audiences not only Rodin but also Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Rousseau, and Picasso. The critics called these artists “madmen,” “lunatics,” and “impostors”; some critics, like Royal Cortissoz, claimed that the chief purpose of these artists was “to turn the world upside down.”
Stieglitz did not disagree with Cortissoz’s interpretation. Indeed, he considered himself a “revolutionist.” Stieglitz believed that art and life were synonymous and that young artists, by defying conventional expression and portraying their inner visions, could launch a revolution based on personal freedom and social justice. As Steichen wrote to Stieglitz in 1913, referring to the gallery at 291, “I really think you are shaping one of the most vital things in the evolution of America.”
But if art could revitalize society, it followed logically that American artists could not simply imitate European styles and expect their work to shape life in the United States. Stieglitz consequently decided after 1913 to promote American artists exclusively. From that year until his death in 1946 he dedicated his life to sponsoring American artists—especially John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and, after 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe. The first three left no doubt, in Dove’s term, that Stieglitz’s “super-encouragement” made their painting possible. As much as his own photography, their painting was his legacy.
In her autobiography O’Keeffe never acknowledged Stieglitz’s efforts on her behalf, in the way Marin, Hartley and Dove did, in part perhaps because her struggle was more difficult. Between 1908 and 1912 she gave up her goal of becoming an artist. Later she said she went to Chicago to work as a freelance commercial artist in advertising because she felt that the realistic styles of painting that she had learned in school were uninspiring and that she had nothing original to contribute. More likely her family’s reversal of fortune explains her quitting school during those lean years, but O’Keeffe would not admit such dependence.
While O’Keeffe was back in Charlottesville in the summer of 1912, her sisters persuaded her to attend the University of Virginia’s summer-school art class. It was a turning point in both O’Keefie’s personal life and her development as an artist. Taught by Alon Bernent, an assistant professor of fine arts at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, the class rekindled O’Keeffe’s interest in art. Bernent introduced his students to a theory of art outlined by a colleague in New York, Arthur Wesley Dow, who wanted to transcend realistic representation and instead, as he put it, fill space in a beautiful way. Dow believed that Japanese aesthetics and the ancient principles of abstract design could open new avenues of expression for American artists. Dow’s theory offered O’Keeffe a chance to start over; “filling a space in a beautiful way,” she later explained, became her lifelong goal.
Bement was so impressed by his student that he asked O’Keeffe to become his assistant, and for the next four summers she returned to Charlottesville to teach under his direction. He introduced her not only to Dow’s textbooks but, equally important, to the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s revolutionary tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Published in 1912, Kandinsky’s manual argued that modern artists should seek to portray the “inner spirit in outer things” through abstract representation.
In August 1912 O’Keeffe, with the help of a former classmate, obtained a job as an art supervisor for the public schools in Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo, a raw cattle town of about fifteen thousand, had no paved roads, no fences, and few automobiles. Drinking, fighting, and prostitution were the main recreations. But O’Keeffe, the young art teacher, felt she “belonged,” even though she quarreled frequently with her conservative superiors over how much artistic freedom to give her charges. The “terrible winds” across the flat, arid plains and the “untouched feel of the country,” she later said, exhilarated her. The light coming on the plains—the title of more than one of her paintings—captured her imagination, and she returned to the wide-open desert again and again both as a motif for painting and, eventually, as a place to live permanently.
After two terms in Amarillo, O’Keeffe decided to resume her formal art education. Bement had urged her to take Dow’s course at Teachers College, and in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven, she made arrangements to return to New York, where she had been a student seven years earlier. In 1914 New York was experiencing a cultural renaissance. New directions in painting, literature, theater, philosophy, politics, and social customs were challenging Victorian sensibilities in everything from the function of art to the nature of sex. Two years earlier a visitor from Ireland had announced he could hear fiddles “tuning as it were all over America.” By 1914 they were in full song, as men and women, including Alfred Stieglitz, Randolph Bourne, Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, and Isadora Duncan, helped redefine American culture.
O’Keeffe lived frugally in a bare hall-bedroom for four dollars a week. The only aesthetic addition to her Spartan apartment on New York’s Upper West Side near Columbia was a pot of red geraniums she placed on the fire escape. She still kept mostly to herself and worked hard, but New York expanded her intellectual horizons as much as the Texas plains had extended her artistic vision.
Already fiercely independent and self-sufficient, O’Keeffe soon developed an ideology to support her personal impulses. She befriended a classmate, Anita Pollitzer, who was an engaging and active feminist. Following her friend’s example, O’Keeffe joined the organization that later became the National Woman’s Party, which in 1914 stood not only for universal suffrage but also for the complete emancipation of women in American society. She read and admired Floyd Dell’s Women as World Builders, published in 1913, which argued that “the woman who finds her work will find her love,” a radical idea for a still genteel age. And a boyfriend, Arthur Macmahon, a liberal political science professor at Columbia, introduced her to his former roommate Randolph Bourne’s Youth and Life, a 1913 polemic calling for self-expression and extolling the virtues of experimental living.
Most important for O’Keeffe’s future, she returned to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. There she saw the latest European postimpressionist art, which she was beginning to appreciate, and talked to Stieglitz, whom she still found too inquisitive, familiar, and provocative for her liking. But one thing he told her at an exhibit of abstract drawings by John Marin made a deep impression. An artist with courage, Stieglitz said, could paint as he wished and make a living. Indeed, Marin had just squandered, in Stieglitz’s view, a year’s earnings to buy an island off the coast of Maine.
When, the following year, she went to Columbia, South Carolina, to teach at a small Methodist college, O’Keeffe maintained an intellectual lifeline to 291, subscribing to both Camera Work and Stieglitz’s new avant-garde sheet, 291, which explored the latest ideas in modern art. “291 came and I was so crazy about it that I sent for Number 2 and 3,” she wrote her friend Anita Pollitzer. “I think they are great—They just take my breath away—it is almost as good as going to 291.”
Living in South Carolina in the fall of 1915, cut off from friends, relatives, and social distractions, O’Keeffe allowed the ideas she had been exploring to express themselves in a series of dramatic charcoals. Dow, Kandinsky, and Stieglitz had prepared her to become the first American artist to develop an intensely subjective, abstract style of painting without first going to Europe to study. In her autobiography O’Keeffe described the heady feeling that led to her breakthrough: “I hung on the wall the work I had been doing for several months. Then I sat down and looked at it. I could see how each painting or drawing had been done according to one teacher or another, and I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me shapes and ideas so near to me—so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing—no one interested— no one to say anything about it one way or another. 1 was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.”
But O’Keeffe did have models. A year before she executed the lyrical charcoals in South Carolina, which satisfied and expressed some deep personal need within her, Stieglitz had written Marsden Hartley, “The chief thing that interests me is to see the perfectly natural unfolding of the so-called inner-self.” O’Keeffe knew what she was doing, and she knew, too, what the most important critic in the United States was looking for in 1915. “I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something— anything I had done,” she wrote Anita Pollitzer the same month she drew the charcoals, “than anyone else I know of—I have always thought that—If I ever make anything that satisfies me even ever so little—I am going to show it to him to find out if it’s any good.” If she had not added the following thought, however, she would not have been the artist she became. “I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do—no matter who they are—isn’t it enough just to express yourself.” She continued, “Let them all be damned—I’ll do as I please.”
O’Keeffe rolled up her drawings, put them in a paper tube, and mailed them to PoIlitzer in New York. “They are at your mercy,” she wrote, “do as you please with them.” Realizing that O’Keeffe would wish Stieglitz to see her Lines and Spaces in Charcoal, Pollitzer took them to 291 on New Year’s Day, 1916. The elevator was out of order, so she walked up to the fourth-floor gallery, where she found Stieglitz looking tired and discouraged after a long day of visitors. She asked him if he wanted to see some drawings. In the quiet of a late Saturday afternoon, Stieglitz observed O’Keeffe’s long lines and curved shapes and commented, “She’s got the sensitive emotion.” In a letter to O’Keeffe, Pollitzer recounted Stieglitz’s reaction. “They’re the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while,” he said, and added that he would like to show them someday.
O’Keeffe was thrilled by Stieglitz’s reaction. “It makes me want to keep on,” she wrote her friend. “I had almost decided it was a fool’s game.
” In the spring semester in 1916, West Texas State Normal College in the small town of Canyon, twenty miles south of Amarillo, offered O’Keeffe a position, provided she first take Dow’s teaching-methods course at Columbia. She left immediately for New York, having made arrangements to live with Pollitzer’s uncle’s family. She was unhappy in South Carolina and looked forward to returning to the Texas plains and to visiting New York City again.
O’Keeffe did not go to 291 until almost the end of the school term. Someone had told her that “Virginia O’Keeffe” was having an exhibit there. Realizing that Stieglitz had hung her charcoals without her permission, without informing her, and perhaps without even getting her name right, she raced downtown to demand their return. “For me,” she later wrote, recalling her first public exhibition, “the drawings were private and the idea of their being hung on the wall for the public to look at was just too much.” Stieglitz did not even know who she was when she angrily confronted him. He recalled she wore a “simple black dress with a little white collar” and “had a sort of Mona Lisa smile.” Less interested in her pique than in the origins of her art, he probed for the impulse that had led to a particular drawing. “I often get headaches,” O’Keeffe told him, “and this is the picture I see.” Then, in reply to another personal question, she shot back: “Do you think I’m an idiot? I refuse to say anything more.” But the very persuasive Stieglitz defused her anger, took her to lunch, and asked her to send him her work in the future.
Stieglitz claimed he would have known that a woman had done the abstract charcoals had he not been told. Referring to them in 1915, O’Keeffe herself wrote that it was “essentially a woman’s feeling” she wanted to convey. When Camera Work reviewed the O’Keeffe drawings, Stieglitz exclaimed that “‘291’ had never before seen a woman express herself so frankly on paper.” Later O’Keeffe repudiated the confining notion that she was a woman’s artist. Freudian interpretations of the flower paintings, which she did in the twenties and thirties, particularly upset her. By then she knew she could compete with “the men,” as she called her colleagues, on their own terms, and she rejected the claims of feminist criticism, including efforts in the 1970s to make her a role model. But in 1916 the idea that she was portraying an American woman’s view of the world appealed to Stieglitz and others who felt that O’Keeffe’s feminine imagery could help liberate a puritanical, male dominated society.
When O’Keeffe went to Texas to teach in August 1916, she and Stieglitz corresponded frequently. In April 1917 he gave O’Keeffe her first solo show. It was a critical success, and she sold her first picture, an abstract charcoal interpretation of an “early morning train roaring in.”
The O’Keeffe exhibit was the last show at 291. It opened the day after President Wilson took his war message to Congress. In wartime Stieglitz’s hope that modern art could revitalize society seemed no more powerful than a desert mirage. Lacking funds, confidence, and freedom to continue experimenting with new ideas and expressions, he stopped publishing Camera Work and closed his gallery for good.
For O’Keeffe the war was less decisive. She was not interested in creating a new society, and after 1918 her effort to express herself through painting began to bear fruit. In keeping with other artists, she abandoned purely abstract art after World War I, seeking instead to portray flowers, barns, bones, and anything else that struck her fancy. She found that “filling space in a beautiful way” had not depended so completely upon abstract expression as she once thought. Indeed, part of O’Keeffe’s success as an artist rested upon her ability to appeal simultaneously to sophisticated and naive audiences, both of which could appreciate her style, her use of bold colors, and her strong sense of design.
The war did, however, mark a new beginning in the personal lives of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. O’Keeffe, in Texas in May 1917, impulsively decided to visit 291 to see her show. Before she arrived in New York, the exhibit had closed, but Stieglitz rehung it for her private viewing. It was then that he first photographed O’Keeffe, her face twice and her hands several times. These pictures were the beginning of a remarkable series of about three hundred photographs that he took of her in the next twenty years.
Stieglitz, then in his mid-fifties, was entranced by O’Keeffe. To him she personified the essence of femininity. At twenty-nine she was beautiful, sexy, spontaneous, and independent. He admired her courage and intensity and felt strongly attracted to her, particularly when he contrasted O’Keeffe with his wife of almost twenty-five years, Emmy, a traditional and somewhat sour woman whose chief interests—society and fashion—were repugnant to him. O’Keeffe stayed in New York for only three days but had time to go to Coney Island with Stieglitz, the photographer Paul Strand, and another friend. It was cold, and Stieglitz put his black loden cape around her, a gesture she recalled some sixty years later.
When O’Keeffe returned to Texas, she found teaching in Canyon more confining than she had the year before. She opposed America’s entry into World War I, and her views did not sit well with patriotic Texans. Depressed and ill, O’Keeffe left her job and went to live with a friend in the southern part of the state. Stieglitz, afraid that his new protégée was in danger, sent Paul Strand to Texas to bring her back to New York, where he had made arrangements for her to live and work in his niece’s studio on East Fifty-ninth Street.
One day, soon after her arrival in New York, Stieglitz’s wife unexpectedly interrupted a photo session with O’Keeffe. She gave her husband an ultimatum: Stop seeing O’Keeffe or leave. The choice was easy. He left to live with O’Keeffe in the studio apartment. It took six years to obtain his divorce, and Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were married in a civil ceremony in New Jersey in 1924.
They did not live happily ever after. Stieglitz, almost sixty-one, was twenty-four years older than his new wife. Rigid and idiosyncratic, he, as O’Keeffe wrote after his death, “was the leader or he didn’t play.” O’Keeffe, on the other hand, was equally determined to do things her own way. She, of course, kept her maiden name. “Why,” she asked, “should I take on someone else’s famous name?” The couple’s contrasting social natures made life together difficult. The firstborn Stieglitz loved to be the center of attention and throve on company, conversation, and conviviality, while O’Keeffe craved privacy and time and space to work. “I never knew how many there would be for dinner,” she complained. In her autobiography she did not mention her marriage to Stieglitz and in an introduction to selected photographs of herself by Stieglitz alluded indirectly to the couple’s problems. “For me,” she wrote, “he was much more wonderful in his work than as a human being.”
In fact, each did stimulate the other’s art. Until he met O’Keeffe, Stieglitz felt his creative urge was ebbing, but from 1918 until he put his camera down in 1937, he expanded photography’s horizons by taking exemplary new photographs, including his series of cloud studies, or “equivalents,” as he called them. These, he said, O’Keeffe helped inspire. So, too, did O’Keeffe mature as an artist, expanding her range and perspective under the careful nurturing of her husband, who showed, promoted, and sold her paintings to an admiring public.
In 1929 O’Keeffe visited Taos, New Mexico, where a group of artists and writers, including Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett, and D. H. Lawrence, had established an artists’ retreat. She was mesmerized by the dramatic, open vistas (though she did not care for the people in “Mabel-town”) and decided to spend her summers in New Mexico apart from Stieglitz. Eventually she bought property in a town called Abiquiu. Stieglitz did not like the arrangement, but O’Keeffe found New York and Lake George, where the large, garrulous Stieglitz clan gathered in the summers, too claustrophobic. When Stieglitz died in 1946, she moved West permanently. For the next forty years she lived in her New Mexico house, doing work that further established her place in the history of American art.
After World War II, O’Keeffe carefully consolidated her image as America’s lone artist who had the courage and strength to do things her own way. Living far from the tumult of the New York art world, she created the myth that she had become an artist solely by the force of her vision and determination. Although there was some truth to it, the myth ignored the important help she received over the years from her mother, Elizabeth May Willis, Alon Bernent, Arthur Wesley Dow, Anita Pollitzer, and, most important, Alfred Stieglitz, without whose support her career as an artist would have been inconceivable. As one critic wrote in 1978— just as O’Keeffe would have wished—her “painting, with its images of romantic, isolated purity, became an embodiment of an individual who was strong enough to live out her life exactly as she wanted to.”
Perhaps she did. But there was another side to O’Keeffe, less attractive, more hidden, but equally important. Victor Lobl, a photographer who traveled to New Mexico on assignment in 1971, saw it. O’Keeffe, he said, “gives off [the impression] that she has come out of a vacuum. Nothing around her can take credit for who she is. Her independence through painting eradicates where she comes from.”
Of course, it did not. But O’Keeffe’s conviction that her art liberated her from the mundane ties of common life, which were indeed frustrating, hard, and, finally, inescapable, gave her the will she needed to become one of America’s preeminent artists.