Georgia O’Keeffe

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Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist who is often referred to as the “Mother of American modernism”. She was born on November 15, 1887 in Wisconsin and was of Irish and Hungarian descent. She was the second of seven children born to dairy farmers Francis and Ida O’Keeffe. She was interested in art as a child and took watercolor lessons at the age of 10. She attended school in Wisconsin and later in Virginia. She then attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906 and then the Art Students League in New York City in 1907. The next year, one of her paintings won the first prize at an art competition, which entitled her to attend outdoor summer school in New York. However, she gave up on painting for the next few years, choosing instead to work as a commercial artist in Chicago. In 1912, she attended summer school at the University of Virginia which revived her interest in art. While here, she met American painter and photographer Arthur Wesley Dow, who inspired and encouraged her to continue painting.

O’Keeffe began teaching art classes in public schools, and then at Columbia College and West Texas A&M University. In 1916, she met a photographer named Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery named “291”. Stieglitz wanted to exhibit some of O’Keeffe’s work, including some oil paintings and watercolors. Her first exhibition was in 1916 and the next was held the following year. The latter was her first solo exhibition. In 1918, she moved to New York to work with Stieglitz; the two were romantically involved by then, although he was still married and 23 years older than her. His divorce was finalized in 1924, and they were married shortly thereafter. Between the time that they met and his retirement in 1937, Stieglitz had made more than 350 portraits of O’Keeffe which he often displayed in his exhibitions. A lot of these were erotic photographs depicting her in the nude. These pictures became a huge sensation, and O’Keeffe remarked later that it seemed the photographs were not of her at all, but rather another person entirely.

O’Keeffe became involved in Stieglitz’s personal and professional circle which included artists such as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen and others. She began to make name for herself, particularly for the large scale watercolor landscapes that she painted, including Petunia, No. 2, Black Iris III and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York. She began to be celebrated as a feminist and the originator of “female iconography”, labels which she rejected, refusing to collaborate with other artists. She was often identified as a loner, and loved spending her time in solitude, contemplating the scenery around her. By the 1920s, she was hailed as one of America’s top artists and her paintings commanded high prices.

O’Keeffe worked in various places including Hawaii, New Mexico and New York. In 1946, her husband suffered from a stroke and she lived with him until his death shortly thereafter. She continued to paint until the end of her life. In 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art featured the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition of her work. A few years later, she started facing loss of vision which hampered her painting. She took up pottery and also wrote a book about her art. She died in 1986 at the age of 98. Georgia O’Keeffe has been honored with several awards, including being elected to the exclusive American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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