Georgia O’Keeffe - The Mother of Modernism
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Georgia O'Keeffe
You’re probably familiar with Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist best known for her paintings of the American Southwest. But she also helped give birth to American Modernism, an entirely new art genre in the early part of the 20th century. Think intense color, abstract, futuristic.
Genius doesn’t just happen. There’s usually a compelling story behind the journey to becoming a household name. Dawn Tripp’s novel Georgia provides insight into Georgia O’Keeffe’s incredible rise. While it includes many references to O’Keeffe’s stunning art career, what hooked me was the story behind the art. Georgia is the story of a woman who also happens to be an artist.
The way Tripp wrote Georgia has a lot to do with my appreciation for the book. Her writing is crisp. It’s sharp, edgy. Just like Georgia O’Keeffe. I felt like O’Keeffe was sitting in a chair across from me talking about her life. And then there’s Tripp’s masterful blending of history with fiction.
Capturing O’Keeffe’s voice didn't happen by accident. In the author’s notes at the end of the book, Tripp wrote that landing on the right voice for the novel was the hardest part about writing it. “It took me over a year to find the voice of this novel. I did research, filled notebooks… I studied her [O’Keeffe’s] paintings and the evolution of her art over time. I looked at Stieglitz’s portraits of her and portraits made by other photographers taken later in her life. I wrote pieces of scene, fragments of thought and dialogue, but most of those early pages felt like cardboard, and I tore them up… I couldn’t quite nail it.” Eventually, however, inspiration produced exactly what Tripp had been waiting for. I’m glad she took her time. In the end, she rocked it.
Like all good stories, Georgia unfolds gradually. Following a brief prologue, in Chapter One we meet Georgia in 1979 in Abiquiu, New Mexico, looking back on her life, giving readers a hint of what’s to come on the pages that follow. It’s a short chapter, a teaser, really. Chapter Two shifts to New York in 1917 where we meet Alfred Stieglitz, a prominent New York art dealer. Stieglitz immediately becomes O’Keeffe’s art dealer—and the love of her life. Early on, however, it becomes obvious Alfred Stieglitz is not an easy man to love. Especially for an independent woman like Georgia O’Keeffe.
Stieglitz was famous as an artist long before O’Keeffe met him. His photography broke new ground. As an example, at the right is his photo of the Flatiron Building in New York (1903; public domain). Like Georgia, he had wrapped himself in the modern art movement and helped bring it into focus through his photographs. And through his art studio. He did much to promote other artists, some say at the expense of his own art.
Georgia, however, is O’Keeffe’s story, and it’s her narrative we are privy to, her side of things. It’s not a romance novel but a love story between two artists who demand much of the world, and of each other. The sequence of events follows O’Keeffe’s life exactly, from when she met Alfred Stieglitz, to when her art exploded on the scene, to when she married Stieglitz, and when they fell out. There are flashbacks of her younger self, too, allowing us a glimpse of who and what formed her. During it all, we see what women were up against in the early part of the 20th century—the misogyny, the stereotypes, the minimization—and what O’Keeffe did to overcome these forces, and more importantly, what she did to shield herself from becoming what others would have liked her to be.
So, who was the real Georgia O’Keeffe?
For fun I put together a list of things you might enjoy knowing about O'Keeffe. Nothing here will spoil Georgia for you. Rather, my hope is it will inspire you to read the book for yourself.
Georgia O’Keeffe was an outdoor girl kinda gal from the start. O’Keeffe was born a Midwest farmer’s daughter in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Living on a farm allowed her to form an early connection to the natural world—the changing seasons, the strength and fecundity of the soil. I believe these things shaped her. The natural world played a dramatic role in her art. When she needed to replenish herself, it was the outdoors to which she turned.
Early on, O’Keeffe knew she wanted to be an artist. Sometimes you’re just sure. O’Keeffe studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Afterward she taught art in West Texas for two years where she eventually became head of the art department at West Texas A&M University. Her main goal, however, was to become a commercial artist. As with most creatives, it wasn’t a choice for her as much as a calling to pursue a life as an artist. It was a risk. Being an artist was a financially unstable endeavor then and remains so to this day. In the early part of the 20th century, it was doubly difficult for a woman. But O’Keeffe was a stubborn individual. Nothing was going to stand in her way. Her early work was done in charcoal drawings and watercolors. Later she evolved to oils.
A stunning breakthrough, and O’Keeffe was on her way. O’Keeffe made it big quite early. When a mutual friend showed some of her charcoal drawings to Alfred Stieglitz, he was blown away. He exhibited her work in 1916—without her permission. One could say Stieglitz “discovered” O’Keeffe. She was 29 at the time, living in an obscure Texas town. The two eventually met. He was twenty-five years her senior and married to another woman. The chemistry between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, however, was palpable. They fell helplessly in love with each other. In 1918, O’Keeffe moved to New York, where Stieglitz became her supporter. Stieglitz had a plan for Georgia. With his experience as an art dealer, he knew just when and how to introduce her, and she followed his lead. Her first solo show was held in May 1917, which displayed her charcoal drawings, oils, and watercolors. By the mid-1920s, she was one of America’s most prominent modern artists. Below is a photo of her taken by Stieglitz in 1917. (Source: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
Gentlemen, it’s not sexual. From the start, male critics gendered her work and eroticized it. O’Keeffe vehemently objected to this characterization. She had no intention of her art having sensual or sexual meaning. She only sought to portray an interpretation of her subject through her eyes, as does any artist. That Sigmund Freud was popular during this time probably had a lot to do with O’Keeffe’s art being viewed as the work of a sexually repressed woman. And the fact that all the art critics were men.
Flower power. O’Keeffe’s New York landscapes were the first to draw widespread attention to her, but she soon shifted to flowers. Below is Black and Purple Petunias. (Source: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
O’Keeffe is quoted as having said, “I hate flowers—I only paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.” But she also said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
Though she is often best known for her flowers, surprisingly, flowers make up only ten percent of O’Keeffe’s more than 2,000 paintings. She was first inspired by flowers at the Lake George (NY) estate owned by Alfred Stieglitz’s family, where she eventually spent many summers. She also vacationed alone to Maine, and later to New Mexico, of course, where the area's floral richness only further inspired her creativity.
A ring, and everything changes. In 1924, O’Keeffe married Stieglitz. Theirs was a fiery romance. In all they wrote 25,000 love letters to each other, many of them lengthy. In time, however, the relationship turned rocky. ‘Nuff said here. Georgia beautifully exhibits this complicated marriage. Read it.
Georgia’s art pays off…big. In 1928, O’Keeffe’s calla lily paintings sold for a whopping $25,000, the most money paid to an American living artist (at that time). In today’s terms that’s nearly half a million dollars—$414,520.94, to be exact.
Stress. Born and raised in the country, O’Keeffe found city living suffocating. Two chronic mental health conditions eventually surfaced: anxiety and depression. In 1932-33 she had what was then called “psychoneurosis”, a nervous breakdown, for which she was hospitalized for months. Many things might have induced this episode. Solitude was important to her and in short supply. Stieglitz was having an affair. She was frustrated with work she had reluctantly taken on. O’Keeffe took a year to recover. She didn’t draw. She didn’t paint. She connected with friends and traveled. It’s worth noting that Stieglitz also suffered from depression. (Below: O'Keeffe's Abstraction White Rose, 1925; Source: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
Nothing ever stays the same. O’Keeffe kept evolving as an artist. Though she and Stieglitz had reached a point of difficulty that made it impossible to go on as they had, they stayed married. But half the year she began to live in New Mexico and other places. New Mexico in particular transformed O’Keeffe. The landscape, with its unusual geological formations, stark colors, and unusual vegetation, stimulated a new direction for her art. Each year she visited it for increasingly longer periods of time. Stiglitz died in 1946. In 1949, she made it her permanent home. She no longer had ties to New York to keep her there. It was never where this outdoor girl belonged. In the 1950s, O’Keeffe began to travel to other countries, which further expanded her vistas, and thus, her art.
A legend. Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe in 1986 at the age of 98. By then she had lost nearly all of her eyesight due to macular degeneration but continued to paint from memory.
The art she produced in her lifetime is known in technical terms as precisionism, an art form which depicts precise, sharply defined geometrical forms. She was also known for figuration and abstraction, but the primary category she is known for is, of course, American Modernism.
If you are familiar with O’Keeffe’s art, I urge you to revisit it at this wonderful online display. If you aren’t familiar with her work, then viewing it is a must. I also encourage you to examine some of Alfred Stieglitz’s work. You don’t have to be a photography buff to see what a brilliant eye he had.
Like something a bit more lyrical? In 1990, folk and rock singer Dan Fogelberg wrote Bones in the Sky, a song about Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition to being a singer and a prolific song writer, Fogelberg dabbled in visual art and photography. His admiration for O'Keeffe is clear. One of his stanza’s captures the essence of her particularly well:
Bones in the sky Long winding rivers That never ran dry And the secrets she gathered From the wild blowing sands Breathed in her heart And her hands
You can watch a music video to the song here. The video is a moving tribute to O’Keeffe, showing images of her and some of her most famous work, along with other paintings you’ve likely never seen unless you are an avid O’Keeffe fan. I highly recommend it for the visual cornucopia it offers. Watching and listening, I am transported to another time and place. And it’s a pretty cool song.
Georgia is an evocative read, one you won’t want to miss. Many thanks to Dawn Tripp for bringing Gerogia O'Keeffe's story to modern readers. Reading it reminded me it’s not foolish to follow one’s dream. It is, I would say, essential to one’s happiness.
If you’d like my monthly post featuring historical fiction that tells the story of amazing women like Georgia O’Keeffe, be sure to sign up below.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
Footnotes:  https://www.georgiaokeeffe.net/georgia-okeeffe-facts.jsp  Blog post. Mental Health History: 5 More Artists with Depression. Sartle. Rogue Art history. March 2019. Retrieved from https://www.sartle.com/blog/post/mental-health-art-history-5-more-artists-with-depression  Wikiart, The Visual Art Encyclopedia.