Artists & Designers

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Born in 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe began drawing lessons at ten. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906 and the Art Students League in New York with William Merritt Chase from 1907 to 1908. Disillusioned with academic art, she gave up painting in 1908 and went to Chicago where she worked as a commercial artist.

After a few years in Chicago working as a commercial artist O'Keeffe returned to her family's home in Virginia. In the summer of 1912 at her sisters’ urging, she visited a drawing class at the University of Virginia taught by Alon Bement. His instruction, based on theories of design inspired by Columbia Teachers' College professor Arthur Dow, greatly influenced O'Keeffe's thinking. The tone of the art world, set by such champions of the American school as O’Keeffe’s former instructor William Merritt Chase, was conservative. Before the revolutionary Armory Show in 1913, when European avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso were introduced to the American public, Alfred Stieglitzs "291" Gallery was the only outlet where work by such innovative artists could be seen. O'Keeffe visited "291" and was initially put off by Stieglitz's abrasive, argumentative personal style. But she was, at the same time, fascinated by his enthusiasm for the role of new arts for the new century.

From the fall of 1912 through the spring of 1914, O'Keeffe supported herself by teaching art in Amarillo, Texas. She immediately felt at home in the prairie, despite the difference between the great empty spaces of Texas and the familiar green rolling hills of Virginia where she continued to spend her summers. O'Keeffe returned to New York from the fall of 1914 through the spring of 1915 and again in the spring of 1916 for a few months of study at Columbia Teachers' College. A more serious student than on previous visits, she began making critical decisions about her future as an artist. New European and American artists, as well as collectors and critics, continued to meet in Stieglitz's "291" Gallery.

While in South Carolina teaching at a small college in 1915 and 1916, O'Keeffe created a series of highly original black and white charcoal drawings. She sent the drawings to Anita Pollitzer, a friend and fellow student from New York, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz. Organic, natural forms define these abstract drawings that visually incorporate O'Keeffe's idea of drawing based on the elements of design.

Returning to Texas in the fall of 1916 provided O'Keeffe with the inspiration to produce highly expressive images. She re-introduced brilliant color into her work, using it freely as a tool of expression, just as she had before used only line, form, and composition. She also began to utilize a technique that she would use throughout her life: the repetition of one idea in a series of pictures dealing with the same subject.

Stieglitz and O'Keeffe corresponded regularly from 1916 to 1918. The drawings that the artist sent to Stieglitz from Canyon, Texas, formed the nucleus of her first one-woman show held at "291" during the spring of 1917. She traveled to New York to see the exhibition, which had been taken down and had to be rehung. When the paintings and drawings were re-installed, Stieglitz took his first photographs of O'Keeffe, beginning a study that would last until 1937. O'Keeffe returned to New York in 1918, and the two were married in 1924.

By the 1920s, O'Keeffe had rebelled against her training at the Art Students League and had developed a highly personal vocabulary of forms derived from nature. She filled up entire canvases with close up images of plants and flowers. During her career, which spanned nearly seventy years, O'Keeffe's art continually fluctuated between the real and abstract. She presented identifiable subjects, whether a flower, a bone, or a rock and explored the idea of that object until she had exhausted her interest in the image.

Stieglitz supported her work with yearly solo exhibitions, first at the Intimate Gallery and subsequently at An American Place after "291" closed. In 1929, O'Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico. There she continued to use her surroundings as her most frequent subject, creating innovative renderings of the magnificent beauty and mystery of the desert landscape. By picking up pieces of the desert, bones, and rocks and by isolating and magnifying them, she painted the essence of the land she loved. After Stieglitz's death in 1946, O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico to live permanently, but she traveled frequently and gained inspiration from new sites and experiences.

Adapted from

  • Steven A. Nash, Dallas Collects American Paintings: Colonial to Early Modern (exhibition catalogue, Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), 136-139.

  • "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Brief Biography," DMA Bulletin Spring/Summer 1988, pp 27-29.

Fun Facts

  • Georgia O'Keeffe was the first woman to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

  • O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924, exchanged over 5,000 letters from their meeting in 1916 until his death in 1946.

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