Georgia O'Keeffe is wildly underrated. While her enormous body of work is still shown in museums and galleries around the world, her fiery personality hasn't taken on the gravitas it really deserves. Born on November 15th, 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia decided to become an artist at an early age. She attended art school, most notably the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905 and the Art Students League in New York in 1907. During her time there, O'Keeffe was immersed in the work of contemporary visionaries and practiced the techniques of realist painting. She explored some of the most popular galleries of the time, including Gallery 291 in Midtown, where she met art dealer and famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was also co-owner of the gallery. At the time, O'Keeffe had no idea she had just met the man who would help launch her career.
Returning to the Midwest in 1908, she took a corporate job as a commercial artist in Chicago in order to support herself. After a series of tragedies befell her parents, including serious illness and financial misfortune, O'Keeffe left her position and moved with her family to Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1911, she began teaching art at local schools. A year after that, she moved to Amarillo, Texas and taught art in the public school system until 1914. Simultaneously, she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings that she mailed to a friend in New York. Her friend then showed the drawings to Alfred Stieglitz, still considered one of the forefathers of modern art, who agreed to show O'Keeffe's work in 1916-- her very first exhibition.
Following the exhibition, Stieglitz maintained a long distance correspondence with the school teacher, which came to a head when O'Keeffe took an un-announced trip to New York to visit Stieglitz. It was obvious to them both that their relationship-- that of mentor and mentee-- was morphing into something much deeper, which is reflected in their letters. In 1918, O'Keeffe (28) decided to move to New York to be with the much-older and unhappily-married Stieglitz (52). She moved in with him immediately and they married in 1924. For a time, they lived with Stieglitz's family, an arrangement Georgia disliked immensely, as she found it difficult to concentrate on her work. Additionally, the couple spent every summer upstate at the family's home in Lake George, a favorite retreat for Stieglitz, who cherished the respite from his hectic life in the city. But O'Keeffe was steadily growing more and more discontented.
Over the years, Stieglitz fervently promoted her work to his contemporaries and numerous powerful art world contacts, although members of the modern art scene failed to grasp O'Keeffe's fascination with flowers, a lifelong passion stemming from her midwestern roots. At the time, especially in New York, the cultural focus was on innovation and modernization-- enormous skyscrapers were starting to dominate the city skyline-- and critics thought O'Keeffe's paintings were simply "too feminine" and were representative of "traditional womanhood". It is at this pivotal moment that O'Keeffe made an important decision regarding the style of her work. The closeups and enlarged details were not-- and have never been-- a metaphor for female sexuality or genitalia. She shifted her style to command the attention of the art world, ultimately wanting them to see what she saw when she spent time in nature.
Following this stylistic shift, she rose to enormous fame, largely aided by Stieglitz's own popularity and unwavering public support. O'Keeffe continued to work steadily and feature prominently in exhibits until 1929 when she encountered another life-changing opportunity. Bored with New York, Georgia accepted an invitation from wealthy art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan to visit her home in Taos, New Mexico. Here, O'Keeffe began to flourish in a way she had never been able to in New York. She painted for ten or eleven hours at a time, completely immersed in her work and her output was nothing short of prolific. After several months, she returned to the city and to Stieglitz but made an annual pilgrimage to New Mexico for a part of each year to work in solitude.
Alfred Stieglitz, then in his early seventies, began experiencing a decline in his health and relocated almost full-time to Lake George. It is at this painful juncture that Georgia O'Keeffe exhibited a fierce display of early feminism and complete badassery; though she loved Alfred Stieglitz and was dearly devoted to him (despite various infidelities), the time would come every year when she knew she had to leave his bedside and go nurture her creativity. She knew he was imminently close to death but continued to honor her work and passion. Though she wrote to him constantly and worried about him, Georgia O'Keeffe knew that her talent was the important thing in her life and she refused to let anything stop her. She lived her life according one rule, knowing what was most important to her-- that art comes above all else.
Images courtesy of Georgiaokeeffe.net