Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born in the year on November 15, 1887. She was one of seven children and spent most of her childhood on a farm, with the typical farm animals and rolling hills. O’Keeffe’s aunt, not her mother, was mostly responsible for raising her. O’Keeffe did not care much for her aunt, she once referred to her as, “the headache of my life.” She did, however, have some admiration for her aunt’s strict and self disciplined character. O’Keeffe was given her own room and less responsibility. The younger sisters had to do more chores and share close living conditions. A younger sister stated that O’Keeffe always wanted things her way, and if she didn’t get them her way, “she’d raise the devil.” It was found through family and friends that O’Keeffe was like this throughout much of her life.
O’Keeffe began her training early with private art lessons at home. The foundation of her future as an artist was made. When O’Keeffe was in the eighth grade she asked a daughter of a farm employee what she was going to do when she grew up. The girl said she didn’t know. O’Keeffe replied very definitely, “…I am going to be an artist!”–”I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind.”
She entered the Sacred Heart Academy, an art school in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1901. At school she discovered her blooming talent for artwork. Her art seemed to be the only stable element in O’Keeffe’s younger life. In 1902 her parents moved to Virginia and were joined by the children in 1903. By the age of 16, O’Keeffe had 5 years of private art lessons at various schools in Wisconsin and Virginia. One particular teacher, Elizabeth Willis, encouraged her to work at her own pace and granted her opportunities that the other students felt were unfair. At times she would work intensely, and at other times she would not work for days. When it was brought to the attention of the principal, she would reply…”When the spirit moves Georgia, she can do more in a day than you can do in a week”
After receiving her diploma in 1905 she left for Chicago to live with her aunt and attend the Art Institute of Chicago. She did not return to the Institute the following year after getting Typhoid Fever. Instead, in 1907 she enrolled at the Art Student League in New York City. Discouraged with her work, she did not return to the League in the fall of 1908, but moved back to Chicago and found work as a commercial artist. During this period O’Keeffe did not pick up a brush, and said that the smell of turpentine made her sick.
She moved back to her family in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1909 and later enrolled at a nearby college. In 1912 a friend in Texas wrote to her explaining of a teaching position was open in Amarillo, Texas for a “drawing supervisor”. O’Keeffe applied for the position and was hired for the fall semester. O’Keeffe also made trips to Virginia in the summer months to teach at the University of Virginia. She would remain working at Amarillo until 1914.
After resigning her job in Amarillo, O’Keeffe moved to New York City to attend Columbia Teachers College until accepting a teaching position at Columbia College in South Carolina. Having a light schedule, she felt it would be an ideal job that would give her time to paint. It was at this time that she left behind all she had been taught about in regards to painting and began to paint as she felt. “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…”
During her summers, she studied and taught art at the University of Virginia, working with Alon Bement, who introduced her to the theories of Arthur Wesley Dow. Returning to New York in 1914, she enrolled at Columbia Teachers College to study under Dow, whom she later credited as the strongest influence on the development of her art.
In 1916, O’Keeffe’s friend Anita Politzer showed some of these abstract drawings to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited them at his avant garde gallery 291, on Fifth Avenue in New York. He exclaimed, “At last, a woman on paper!” and told Anita the drawings were the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while.”. He explained that he would like to show them.
O’Keeffe had first visited 291 in 1908, and later on several occasions, but had never talked with Stieglitz, although she had high regard for his opinions as a critic, “I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something…anything I had done…than anyone else I know of…”. In April Stieglitz exhibited 10 of her drawings, and she had not been consulted before the exhibit and only learned about it through an acquaintance. She confronted Stieglitz for the first time over the drawings and later agreeing to let them hang in his gallery.
Needing a job, and missing the wide, flat spaces of northern Texas, Georgia accepted a teaching job at West Texas State Normal College in the fall of 1916. While in Texas she would often make trips to the nearby Palo Duro Canyon, hiking down the steep slopes to observe the sandstone formations. At least 50 watercolors were painted during the time spent in Canyon, Texas. “It was all so far away…there was quiet and an untouched feel to the country and I could work as I pleased.” Georgia’s first solo show opened at the 291 gallery in April 1917. Most of the exhibit had been these watercolors from Texas. After the show Stieglitz decided to close 291 due to financial difficulties but said, “Well I’m through…but I have given the world a woman.”
During the winter Georgia became ill with a flu that was sweeping the country. She took a leave of absence from the teaching job and later resigned. It’s possible that there was pressure from the community to encourage her resignation. One good reason was for what people called “radical views”, which she had concerning the United States’ entry into the war in Europe along with other rebel opinions that were shocking to the small Texas town.
She was encouraged by Stieglitz to return to New York. By this time he had fallen in love with O’Keeffe and wanted to pursue a relationship. He being in an unhappy marriage, had moved out from the family home and into his studio. She boarded a train in June of 1918 to return to New York, Stieglitz, and to a new life that would make her into one of the most important artist of the century.
Shortly after her arrival, Alfred took Georgia up to the Stieglitz family home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. They would return to the lake home each summer for years to come. Georgia produced many paintings of the Lake George countryside during these years.
Stieglitz was Georgia’s most avid supporter. He arranging shows, and sold her paintings. Buying an “O’Keeffe” was not only expensive, but a collector needed to meet Stieglitz’s somewhat hazy standards for owning one. By this time she was known only as “O’Keeffe” to the art world. She rarely signed a painting, but instead would sometimes print an “OK” on the back of the canvas.
Alfred’s wife divorced him in September 1924 and he began to press O’Keeffe into marriage. She was reluctant to do so since they had lived together since 1918 and had survived the scandal, seeing no reason to marry now. She finally gave in and they married late in December.
During the long winter months in New York she began to paint her very large flowers, some of her most popular work today. She completed her first enormous flower painting in 1924. The giant flower paintings were first exhibited in 1925. A Calla Lily painting would sell for $25,000 in 1928 and had drawn media attention to “O’Keeffe” like never before. O’Keeffe’s financial success would finally prove to her that an artist could make a living with a paintbrush.
In 1925 she and Stieglitz moved to the Shelton Hotel in New York, taking an apartment on the 30th floor of the new building. They would live here for 12 years. With such a spectacular view, Georgia began to paint the city.
By 1928 O’Keeffe began to feel the need to travel and to find other sources for painting. The demands of an annual show needed new material. Friends returning from the West with stories stimulated Georgia’s desire to see and explore new places. Alfred had no desire to leave New York and Lake George…he hated change of any type.
In May of 1929, Georgia would set out by train with her friend, Beck Strand, to Taos, New Mexico…a trip that would forever change her life. Georgia found that the thin, dry air enabled her to see farther and at times could see several approaching thunderstorms in the distance at once. She affectionately referred to the land of northern New Mexico as “the faraway”, better defined as a place of stark beauty and infinite space.
Soon after their arrival, Georgia and Beck where invited to stay at Mable Dodge Luhan’s ranch outside of Taos for the summer. She would go on many backpacking trips exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region. On one trip she visited the D.H. Lawrence ranch and spent several weeks there.
While in Taos she visited the historical mission church at Ranchos de Taos. Although she painted the church as many artists had done before, her painting of only a fragment of the mission wall silhouetted against the dark blue sky would portray it as no artist had before. “…I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could…I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at…not copy it.”
Being a loner, Georgia wanted to explore this wonderful place on her own. She bought a Model A Ford and asked others to teach her how to drive. After one particularly exasperating moment, one of her teachers declared that she was unable to learn the art of driving. Only her determination was to lead to mastering her machine. In her yearly visits to New Mexico she would travel the back roads in the Model A ford. O’Keeffe remodeled her vehicle. She removed the backseat, and would unbolt the front seat, and turned it around so that she could prop her canvas against the back wall of the car.
Georgia would return to New Mexico, which she considered “her land”, each summer until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. O’Keeffe spent three years in the city settling his estate. In 1949 at the of age 62, she made New Mexico her permanent residence. She dividing her time between her summer home at Ghost Ranch and an adobe house she had renovated in the historic village of Abiquiu. O’Keeffe traveled internationally, painted and continued to enjoy her status as a supreme American artist. To add to her accomplishments, in 1977, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald R. Ford.
The final days of O’Keeffe’s life were spent in her home. She was well into her 90’s and was tired with life. One friend stated that when visiting her had asking of her current condition, O’Keeffe stated “it’s time for me to go.”. By this time she had lost most of her sight, and could only hold onto her art by sculpting and working with ceramics. However the results were unsatisfactory to her. As her health began to fail, many people remarked at her solid grasp on reality, and her calm peace of mind. She would not make it to her 100th birthday, she died on March 7, 1986, shortly after entering a Santa Fe hospital. She was 98.