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Monday, September 21, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe - An American Inspiration


I adore the work of Georgia O'Keeffe.  It is beautiful, magical, original, and simply feminine.  The other evening I watched a story about her life on Lifetime television and received a renewed sense of artistic inspiration.  She is an inspiration to all women who want to express themselves artistically, freely, and independently and in her day was considered a remarkable woman, paving the way of independence and self-expression to woman around the world.


Georgia O'Keeffe lived a long and interesting life. Born November 15, 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to dairy farmers, Francis Calyxtus O'Keeffe and Ida Totto O'Keeffe. She was the second of 7 children and the eldest daughter. As a child she received art lessons at home, and her abilities were quickly recognized and encouraged by teachers throughout her school years. 


During her grammar school years, she attended Town Hall School in Wisconsin, receiving art instruction from local watercolorist Sara Mann. She attended a boarding high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin between 1901 and 1902. In the fall of 1902 O'Keeffe's family moved from Wisconsin to Williamsburg, Virginia, however, Georgia stayed in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended Madison High School. She completed high school as a boarder at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia (now called Chatham Hall) and she graduated in 1905. Her mother was a large influence to Georgia and her siblings, as education for women was a family tradition. Georgia's mother, Ida, had been educated in the East and encouraged her daughters to pursue their passions and education. All but one of the daughters became professionals, attesting to her influence on them.


Art was always an interest to the young O'Keeffe, and by the time she graduated from high school, she was determined to make her life as an artist. She was encouraged by her family to pursue her passions and goals.

I am convinced, as a mother, that we must listen closely to our children's interests, and that in doing so, we foster personal growth and success in our children's life. In looking at Georgia O'Keeffe's childhood, I am equally convinced that her parent's interest in her life, her passions, her education, and her goals, laid the foundation for her future success, strength of character, and recognition.

Jimson Weed - O'Keeffe

O'Keeffe pursued studies at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905–1906) and at the Art Students League, New York (1907–1908). She quickly mastered the techniques and principles of creating art that then formed the basis of the curriculum, which was imitating realism. I know, first hand, how difficult it can be to imitate realism in painting, and appreciate her early work in learning this skill, however, although principled in these techniques, O'Keeffe had not yet discovered her inner voice. She had not yet discovered how to express herself intimately on canvas. That would come years later.


While attending the Art Student's League and studying with artist William Merritt Chase, she won the League's "William Merritt Chase" award for her still life oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot) in 1908. That award was a scholarship to attend the League's outdoor Summer School at Lake George, New York.  Shortly thereafter, however, O'Keeffe quit making art, saying later that she had known then that she could never achieve distinction working within this tradition.  She was discouraged with her work and thus left the Art Student's League and moved to Chicago where she found work as a commercial artist. However, she did not as much as pick up a paintbrush.

I find this interesting, because I have experienced the same mental conflict when I paint for others or paint for the technical experience and challenge rather than painting from my gut, or from my heart.  I have become so discouraged with my own artwork at times that I have gone months without as much as walking in my studio.  Georgia went 4 years without painting, even after winning this award. I suspect it was because painting was "work" rather than "joy."  It wasn't coming from deep within her soul.


Her interest in art was rekindled four years later (1912) when she took a summer course for art teachers at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, taught by Alon Bement of Teachers College, at Columbia University. Bement introduced O'Keeffe to the then revolutionary ideas of his colleague at Teachers College, artist and art educator Arthur Wesley Dow. (painting above is "Boats at Rest" by Arthur Wesley Dow).


Dow believed that the goal of art was for the artist to express their personal ideas and feelings onto the canvas by harmonious arrangements of line, color, and "notan" which is the Japanese system of lights and darks.  His example and teachings influenced O'Keeffe and inspired her to examine alternative ways to express herself through her painting other than imitative realism.  She experimented with this idea for two years while teaching art in the Amarillo, Texas public schools from 1912-1914.  During the summers, she continued her tutoring with Alon Bement as his art assistant.


In 1916, she mailed some of these drawings to her friend and former Columbia classmate, Anita Pollitzer, who showed them to the internationally known photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who owned the New York Gallery "291" and was renowned for his photography.  He told her that the drawings were the "purest, finest, sincerest pieces that had entered 291 in a long while."  He wanted to show them in the gallery.  O'Keeffe had visited 291 in 1908, but did not meet Stieglitz at that time, although she had high regard for his opinions as an art critic.

In the spring of 1916, O'Keeffe returned to New York to attend classes at the Teacher's College, and also to see Stieglitz, who agreed to exhibit 10 of her charcoal abstractions at his gallery.  That exhibition took place in the spring of 1917.  Sadly, Stieglitz closed the doors to his avant-garde gallery one year later with a one-person exhibition of O'Keeffe's artwork.


Spring 1918, Stieglitz offered O'Keeffe financial support if she would paint for one year in New York.  She accepted.  By that time, they had fallen in love despite the fact that he was already married.  They were married in 1924, shortly after his divorce, and they lived and worked together at the Stieglitz family estate in Lake George, New York until 1929, when O'Keeffe left him and spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico.


From the moment she had returned to New York in 1917 for her exhibition, Stieglitz photographed O'Keeffe.  During their courtship, he took erotic photographs of her, many of them semi-nude and nude photographs between 1918-1937 and in February, 1921, he exhibited 45 photographs, including many of the erotic images of O'Keeffe at the Anderson Galleries.  Obviously, the photographs of O'Keeffe created a public sensation - and it wasn't all good.  We're talking the 1920s here, this imagery was unheard of in those days.


O'Keeffe's artwork emerged to express her innermost feelings.  She created works of both natural and architectural forms during these early years.  In 1924, she created her first large-scale flower painting "Petunia, No. 2" 36x30 Oil on Canvas, which was exhibited in 1925.


Stieglitz organized annual exhibitions of O'Keeffe's works.  By the mid-1920s, O'Keeffe had already become recognized as one of America's most important artists.  Her work commanded high prices, and in 1928, 6 of her Calla Lily paintings sold for $25,000 US dollars.  At that time, that was the largest sum of money ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist. Naturally, this attracted a lot of media attention, the likes that O'Keeffe had never seen before.

3F Pelvis-With-The-Distance-Georgia-O-Keeffe-25622

From 1923 until his death in 1946, Stieglitz worked assiduously to promote the artwork of Georgia O'Keeffe, by organizing regular exhibitions at the Anderson Galleries from 1923-1925, the Intimate Gallery from 1925-1929, and An America Place Gallery from 1929-1946.  As early as the 1920s, at which time O'Keeffe first began to paint the New York landscape as well as large-scale depictions of flowers as she is most well known, she had become recognized as one of America's most important and successful artists. A remarkable accomplishment at that time not only for "any" artist, but particularly for a woman.


In 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death, O'Keeffe moved permanently to her beloved New Mexico, leaving her New York home.  She had always been drawn to New Mexico's stunning vistas and stark landscapes which had inspired her work since 1929.  Many of her paintings of New Mexico, the mountains, the richly colored landscape, the dryness and starkness of the land, the desert, and the vast skies became as well known and recognized as her large florals.  


Taos and Abiquiu, New Mexico have become known as "O'Keeffe Country."  She moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949 and  lived at either her Ghost Ranch House which she purchased in 1940 or at her Abiquiu home which she purchased in 1945 until her death in 1986 at the age of 98.  O'Keeffe continued to work in oil until the mid-1970s, then in watercolor and pencil until 1982.  In 1984, O'Keeffe felt forced into retirement due to failing eyesight.  The landscape had nourished her creative efforts until that time.  She did, however, produce objects in clay from the mid-1970s until 2 years before her death.


As an artist and a woman, I believe we can learn much from the life and paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. She realized early on that if she was to pursue her passion for art, she must seek that which is from within her soul.  She must be passionate about her work, her subject, her place in this world if it is going to express itself within her work and on canvas.  Many artists never learn this lesson.  Others learn from the onset that they must create what is within their heart.  For me, it has been a long lesson, but one that is emerging more and more.  Getting past the academics of art and what others tell me I should do, and pursuing instead what I feel to be true is far more important.  

Georgia O'Keeffe has inspired me in many ways.  First and foremost, her strength of character and personal integrity.  Her work continues to inspire and will for centuries to come.  Thank you Georgia O'Keeffe.




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