Born November 15, 1887, the second of seven children to a family in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, award winning painter Georgia O’Keeffe is known throughout the world for her works of art. Her works, which include Ram's Head White Hollycock and Little Hills, Red Hills with the Pedernal, and Black Iris III, fall into the transition period between the first and second waves of feminism (Women in History).
According to a biography on O’Keeffe on pbs.org, Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork include unparalleled still lives, and beautiful representations of the American landscape which led to a following of both critics and the general public alike. The site states,
Among the great American artists of the 20th-century, Georgia O’Keeffe stands as one of the most compelling. For nearly a century, O’Keeffe’s representations of the beauty of the American landscape were a brave counterpoint to the chaotic images embraced by the art world. Her cityscapes and still lifes filled the canvas with wild energy that gained her a following among the critics as well as the public. Though she has had many imitators, no one since has been able to paint with such intimacy and stark precision.
O’Keeffe decided early in her life that she was going to be a painter because, according to her, "That was the only thing I could do that was nobody else's business." As a teenager, O’Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for a year, before transferring to the Art Students League in New York. Although she was successful with her artwork, O’Keeffe had a hard time finding satisfaction in painting in similar ways as the artists of her time. O’Keeffe decided that teaching was a profession in which she could use her artistic abilities, and still get satisfaction out of, according to the website, Women in History. The site states,
She developed her artistic ability by painting still lifes; most successfully the oil on canvas Dead Rabbit With Copper Pot. Though it won her a scholarship in its medium and was an early indication of her genius, it brought Georgia little personal satisfaction for she felt it differed little from the works of still life painters before her. Ergo, she resolved to put painting aside for a while. Briefly she was a freelance commercial artist in Chicago and then found a more pliable career for her artwork in that of teaching. In 1912, she became a teacher of art and supervisor of art for the public schools in Amarillo, Texas and in 1918 she became head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, Tx.
While teaching, O’Keeffe began studying the teachings of Columbia University professor, Arthur Dow. Dow introduced O’Keeffe into the world of non-European art, Oriental art, in particular. O’Keeffe, stifled by the European art ways of artists of the time, had her eyes opened by this style of art, which brought her back to being an artist. O’Keeffe said “It was Arthur Dow who affected my start, who helped me find something of my own.” In 1916, shortly after beginning her work as an artist again, O’Keeffe sent a couple of her charcoal pieces to a friend in New York, who showed them to photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keeffe).
Stieglitz was infatuated by O’Keeffe’s work, and enthusiastically showed the pieces in his famous gallery “291” on 5th Avenue in New York City, without O’Keeffe’s knowledge or approval. After finding out about her work being displayed, O’Keeffe went straight the New York to demand they be taken down, but Stieglitz convinced her to keep working as an artist, according to the website, Women in History. The site states,
Ignoring Georgia's wishes, this friend showed the drawings to Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneer photographer, who exclaimed: "Finally, a woman on paper!" He exhibited them at his famous art gallery "291" on 5th Avenue in New York City, and immediately they drew attention. Georgia, a reticent person as always, was appalled and went to New York to demand their removal. However, Stieglitz persuaded her to let them remain and to continue her artwork in search of her own personal vision within abstract design.
After staying in contact for two years, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York City to work with him. Once O’Keeffe moved to New York, she became the subject of Stieglitz’s photography, for which she posed nude for on certain occasions (Georgia O’Keeffe). Eventually, the two became lovers, despite their 23-year age difference, and Stieglitz being married with a daughter, they would eventually get married in 1924 (Women in History).
The 1920’s were the time that O’Keeffe’s talents really flourished. She began painting still lives of flowers, but she brought a new technique to the table: magnification. According to the website, Women in History, Black Iris III and Red Poppy really exemplify her works of the 1920’s. The site states,
The whole decade of the 1920s saw the flourishing of Georgia O'Keeffe's artistic talent. The most important of her artwork from this period is her paintings of flowers, as exemplified in Black Iris III and Red Poppy. These, as well as others, possessed a certain style that Georgia broke artistic ground with: magnification. In this Georgia would enlarge the painting subjects to intensify their specific identity, increase their importance, and dramatize their emotional power. Part of the meaning behind these paintings was to prove nature's equality with industrialization.
O’Keeffe’s works were put to close inspection by art critics, who likened the fragility and intimacy of the flowers in her paintings to female genitalia. This resemblance led the critics to link the paintings to the popular Freudian sexuality, which was seen throughout much of the decade. According to the website, Women in History,
Georgia used the flowers as a sexual metaphor to arouse enchantment with its beauty.
In the late twenties, O’Keeffe began to paint industrial landscapes, which include The Shelton with the Sunspots and Radiator Building-Night (Women in History). In 1929, O’Keeffe went on a vacation to New Mexico, where she fell in love with the landscapes. After this trip, O’Keeffe frequently visited the state to travel and paint (Georgia O’Keeffe). The 1930’s brought a new subject for O’Keeffe’s paintings: animal bones. She particularly liked to paint cow skulls, which, similar to her renditions of flowers were magnified and simple. The website, Women in History states,
Just as with the flowers, Georgia enlarged, centered, and simplified the bones on the barren desert. Her depictions were of quietude, remoteness, and perseverance along with the beauty of the desert that is so often unrecognized. In some cases she painted the bones even more enigmatically by adorning them with flowers painted in the same vein as her previous works.
The 1930’s were a particularly difficult time for O’Keeffe. During this time, she suffered a nervous breakdown, and her husband had recurring health issues. However, the two worked through the difficult times to return to their artistic work (Women in History).
O’Keeffe continued to paint animal bones into the 1940’s, when she began to focus her attention on the pelvis. These paintings represented birth and infinity, according to the website, Women in History, which states,
Depicting birth and infinity she painted the pelvis suspended in the sky both abstractly and realistically; the sky was painted to appear clear and endless.
In 1946, Stieglitz passed away, which would have a negative effect on O’Keeffe’s works. She seemed to have lost her passion for painting, and her works were not as vibrant as they were before her husband’s death (Women in History). In 1970, O’Keeffe was exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art ad on of the most important influential American painters. Shortly after this, her vision deteriorated, but, with the help of young artist, Juan Hamilton, she was able to keep up her artwork. O’Keeffe put out an illustrated autobiography, “Georgia O’Keeffe”, in 1976 which would become a best seller. In 1977, O’Keeffe won the Medal of Freedom from President Ford. She also won the Medal of Art from President Regan in 1985 (Georgia O’Keeffe). Less than a year later, Georgia O’Keeffe passed away on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98 (Women in History).
Overall, Georgia O’Keeffe changed the face of modern art. Her work gained recognition early on, and with the influence of her husband, she honed her skills and became a world famous artist. Her artwork continues to be a topic of discussion within the art community and pop culture. Though O’Keeffe was not a feminist herself, her delicate renditions of flowers are known for resembling female genitalia, which led the way for future artists, such as Judy Chicago, to make empowering feminist art.
By: Hillary R
"Georgia O'Keeffe - About the Painter." PBS. PBS, 28 Apr. 2006. Web. 11 May 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/georgia-okeeffe/about-the-painter/55/>.
"Women in History." Georgia O'Keeffe Biography. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/okee-geo.htm>.