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The Life and Work of Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, and grew up on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Even as a child, she was interested in the wonders of nature. As she grew older, she began to collect specimens to study or draw. When O’Keeffe showed early promise as an artist, her abilities were recognized and encouraged by her parents and teachers.

After the family moved to Virginia in 1902, O’Keeffe attended Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school for girls. She was chosen to be the art editor of the school’s first yearbook, and her watercolor painting of red and yellow corn won the Chatham art prize. O’Keeffe went on to pursue her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905-1906) and the Art Students League in New York (1907-1908). Her oil painting, Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot), won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize.

Despite these successes, O’Keeffe turned away from art in her early twenties. She could no longer afford to go to art school, and at this time women were generally discouraged from attempting to become serious artists. In addition, O’Keeffe became ill with measles, which temporarily affected her eyesight.

Her interest in art was rekindled when she enrolled four years later in an art class taught by Alon Bement. He introduced her to the then-revolutionary ideas of his teacher in New York, Arthur Wesley Dow. O’Keeffe was taken with Dow’s idea that filling space in a beautiful way could give even simple tasks an artful quality. This provided an opportunity for O’Keeffe to exchange her realistic painting style for something more abstract.

For the next several years, O’Keeffe worked either as an art teacher in Texas or as Bement’s assistant in Virginia. In 1915, she accepted a position teaching art at Columbia College in South Carolina. While there, she began a series of charcoal drawing in an effort to develop her own style. She mailed some of these drawings to a friend and former classmate in New York, who showed them to the famous photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz was impressed, and even went so far as to exhibit ten of the drawings without her knowledge or consent. O’Keeffe was not pleased when she learned of the exhibition and went to the gallery where she confronted Stieglitz angrily. Following a heated argument, the two artists had lunch together. This event marked the beginning of a relationship that lasted until Stieglitz’ death in 1946.

The two artists began corresponding regularly. In the spring of 1918, O’Keeffe accepted Stieglitz’ offer of financial support to paint for a year in New York. She left Texas to join him, and after several years together in New York, the couple was married in 1924.

Even after her marriage, O’Keeffe continued to travel widely. She first visited New Mexico in 1929 and fell in love with the stark landscape. She began spending summers there and, after taking time to settle Steglitz’s affairs following his death, moved to New Mexico full time in 1949. She split her time between her Ghost Ranch house, which she purchased in 1940, and a house she purchased in Abiquiu in 1945.

While in New York, O’Keeffe often painted the buildings and skyscrapers, but she was drawn to the stark beauty of the natural environment in New Mexico. She became best known for her large paintings of New Mexico landscapes, desert flowers, and sun-bleached animal bones. Because of the way the subject matter was enlarged; the stark linear quality; thin, clear coloring; and bold patterns in O’Keeffe’s work, she is often considered an abstract expressionist. However, she often handled her subject matter representationally, and remained a realist at heart.

Georgia O’Keeffe became famous during her lifetime, breaking through a barrier that previously existed for women artists. She lived well into her 90s, spending her final years in her beloved New Mexico.


Great Women Artist’s DVD Series: Georgia O’Keeffe

Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

How do we know what an artwork means?

• What kinds of information should a responder have available in order to interpret the meaning or message of an artwork?

• What makes on person’s interpretation of an artwork better than another person’s?

• Is it ever a good idea to know what the artist intended the artwork to mean? Must we know what the artist intended?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.