Georgia O'Keeffe (15 November 1887, Sun Prairie, USA — 6 March 1986, Santa Fe, USA) is an American painter, who was best known for her paintings of huge flowers. Georgia spent her first years on the farm, and all her life she was longing for that wilderness. When the artist lived in New York, she got acquainted with a photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who became her husband, agent and the biggest fan. In 1929, O'Keeffe went to New Mexico for the first time, and in 1949, she finally moved there. The artist lived on her small ranch for the rest of her days.
Creative features of the artist Georgia O'Keeffe: at the beginning of her artistic career, she preferred abstract forms. But later she almost completely switched to painting flowers, which glorified her in the final. After her first trip to New Mexico, she had changed her style and began to paint skulls and bones of animals and desert landscapes.
Georgia O’Keefe has lived nearly a century. She witnessed the most eventful years at the end of the XIX to the beginning of the XX century. It was the time of wars and revolutions, discoveries and inventions, desperate struggles for women’s, black men’s and sexual minorities’ rights. However, Georgia O’Keefe did not paint on topical subjects and did not pursue a goal to challenge anyone with her works. She just painted all she considered beautiful, her surrounding world and herself.
At first glance, the biography of Georgia O’Keefe might seem not very eventful and even dull. As she didn't organize any scandalous performances or extravagant tricks. Painting was everything she wanted.
"I Will Be an Artist!"
That’s how Georgia flatly stated in her childhood, unexpectedly even for herself. These words, which might be considered simple childish fantasies, defined her further life. You have to hand it to her parents who took great pains to give her the necessary education, without thinking that she would change her mind or settle down.
Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was the second child and the first girl among seven children of Francis O'Keeffe and Ida Totto O'Keeffe. She was born at a large dairy farm in Wisconsin, but in 1902, the family had to sell it, and they moved to Williamsburg (Virginia). Ida believed that all her children should have a decent education in order to have every chance to get a good job in the future and gain financial independence.
Georgia missed the nature and endless open spaces, in which she grew up. But city gave her a lot of prospects for an artistic career. The girl began to attend art classes in Wisconsin, and after finishing the school she moved to Chicago and entered the Institute of Arts. She had to postpone her ambitious plans due to typhoid fever raging in the USA. Georgia had been struggling with the disease for several months, and during that time she changed her plans. After recovery, the girl went to New York and began to study at the Art Students League.
New York, New York...
This place became significant in the life of Georgia O’Keefe. Here she began her artistic career, and here she gained fame after a few years, and here she met her love.
Alfred Stieglitz was not only a talented photographer, but also a great art connoisseur. In 1916, a colleague Anita Pollitzer showed him several pictures by her friend, drawn with charcoal. As soon as Stieglitz saw them, he said: “Finally! A woman on paper!” And he put O’Keefe’s works on display in his gallery, while Georgia, who taught painting at the Texas College, didn’t even suspect it. After she learned that her artworks were displayed without her permission, she became angry with this fact, came to New York, met with Stieglitz and demanded to take her works from the gallery. However, the photographer managed to reassure her. By the time Georgia O’Keefe left, Stieglitz was already fascinated not only by her art, but by herself as well.
In 1917, Stieglitz organized the first personal exhibition of Georgia O’Keefe. A year later, having passed through Spanish flu and lost her job, the painter succumbed the persuasion of Alfred and finally moved to New York to start a new period as a famous artist, muse and Stieglitz’s beloved.
The next few years Georgia and Alfred were inseparable. They were not embarrassed neither by the 23-year age difference, nor by the fact that Stieglitz left his wife for O’Keefe. Georgia finally got the opportunity to paint, she was loved and absolutely happy. And Stieglitz made her photos as if he were obsessed. In the period from 1918 to 1937, he made more than three hundred photo portraits of Georgia O’Keefe. Alfred maniacally documented every part of her body and face, especially admiring her hands. The scandalous exhibition in 1921, where viewers saw portraits of naked Georgia, was the last drop that made the cup run over and Stieglitz’s wife filed for divorce. In 1924, he finally became free and proposed marriage to his beloved.
At that time, she began to paint her huge flowers. Georgia painted flowers from nature, increasing them by hundreds of times to convey her admiration of the invincible power of nature, hidden in the soul of such a small and short-lived plant. Most often the painter chose very tender and textured flowers for her works: calla lilies, irises, poppies, jimsonweed, and petunia. The husband allowed her to concentrate on the work, taking over the organization of exhibitions and the sale of paintings. In 1928, he sold six of her artworks with calla lilies for a fantastic, for that time, amount of money, 25 thousand dollars.
Until the end of his days, Alfred remained the most devout fan of the painter, although their marriage hardly resembled a fairy tale. O’Keefe refused to be mother, because Stieglitz insisted that her main purpose was painting. Despite the admiration for her talent, Alfred also envied Georgia's fame. In the end, Stieglitz found a mistress, his young student Dorothy Norman, who adored him in silence. This affair became a serious blow for her and she found solace in constant travelling. In 1929, the artist went to New Mexico in search of inspiration and mental equilibrium. And it happened so, that during this journey she found her home.
Since the first visit to New Mexico, her art has changed their plot, but retained its individual recognizable style. The objects she painted were different. One of the first and most known “desert” works was the canvas Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931), in which she used a very popular combination of colours of the American flag.
O’Keefe started to visit this place every summer, enriching her collection of dry branches, rocks and bones. The painter continued to spend winters in New York, being unable to stop the toxic relationship with her husband, although they did not live with each other. Stieglitz selfishly and possessively held both his loved women nearby. This exhausting relationship ended up badly for O’Keefe, as she was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and stopped practicing art for a long time.
After complete recovery she returned to work and went to New Mexico again — that time she knew exactly that someday she would live there. O’Keefe came here in spring and remained till the end of autumn, keeping up painting, and Stieglitz, meantime, exhibited more and more of her works in the gallery. In 1940, Georgia bought a small house at Ghost Ranch, which later became her permanent shelter.
In 1946, Stieglitz had another heart attack, and fell into a coma. Georgia immediately flew to New York and stayed at his bed till the last breath. She brought his ashes to Lake George, where their summer residence was located, and buried it at the foot of a tall fir.
In 1949, Georgia O’Keefe moved to her Ghost Ranch for good. She furnished her house with rough wooden furniture, adorned with her favourite skulls, stones and Indian rugs, so that the surrounding nature seemed to continue inside. Despite her endless love for New Mexico, Georgia travelled all the time. And one of the last sources of inspiration for her were breath-taking views from the plane windows. In the 1960s, she created a series of artworks Sky Above Clouds, showing her admiration for the cloud carpet, directing into infinity.
In the late 1960s, the health of O’Keefe began to deteriorate rapidly, and by 1971 she had practically lost her sight. The artist had to stop painting at all. Georgia engaged in sculpture, a young potter Juan Hamilton helped her and later became her companion and close friend.
Georgia O’Keefe died on 6 March 1986 in Santa Fe at the age of 98 years, leaving behind more than two thousand pictures and drawings. “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore… unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”