When one thinks of American painters, names like Warhol and Pollock readily come to mind. Perhaps, if one is a fan of landscape painting, the commercial success story, Thomas Kinkade, might spark.

Each of these names and others are attached to a distinctive painting style that shaped the art culture in 20th Century America and, to an extent, western art as a whole.

One particularly influential painter is usually dismissed; often, she is not even considered at all: Georgia O’Keeffe.

This American painter with a distinctly Irish surname, so dramatically photogenic that she was a work of art in herself, quietly occupied desert spaces and painted what she saw.

Her mastery of colour and nuance; the sensuality depicted in her portrayals of flowers in close-up was at the centre of a polarization of artistic opinion.

Disdaining figurative elements altogether, she repeatedly averred that her work was purely representational – no matter how often the lushness of her lilies was said to be symbolic of genitalia.

Frail in body but strong in spirit, cultured and socially connected but choosing the life of a bohemian; through her art, Georgia was proclaimed a mother while being a mother to none.

Today, Superprof examines the mass of contradictions that was Georgia O’Keeffe.

Humble Beginnings

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, the second of seven children in her family, was born in 1887, in a Wisconsin farmhouse. She was named after her maternal grandfather, a Hungarian count named George Totto.

Life on the dairy farm was busy but special emphasis was placed on the children’s education. When Georgia was of school age, she was bundled off to the Town Hall School in Sun Prairie to learn the Three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.

an example of precisionist painting
This deceptively simple representation of what Georgia called My Shanty is an example of Precisionism By Georgia O'Keeffe via Wikipedia

Additionally, Mom saw to it that her girls were educated in the arts; she sent daughters Ida, Anita and Georgia to Sara Mann, a watercolour painter of some renown in their small township.

By age 10, little Georgia knew she wanted to be an artist.

But first, she had to complete her basic education. She boarded at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison and, when the family relocated to Virginia so Dad could pursue a business interest, Georgia finished her secondary education at Chatham Episcopalian where, once again, she was a live-in student.

Casting about for the best art study programmes, Georgia settled on The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she consistently placed at the top of her class.

After a bout of typhoid fever that set her studies back a whole year, she moved to New York City in search of a broader art curriculum. She found it at The Art Student’s League, a school founded with the artist in mind: no set curriculum, flexible classes and, most importantly, reasonably priced.

Her oil on canvas, Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, won her a scholarship to their summer school in Lake George, where students could practise ‘plein air’ painting – painting outdoors.

Georgia gladly accepted the boost that scholarship provided but, deep inside, she felt a sense of disquiet.

That prize-winning still life she had painted smacked of impressionism. Georgia could not help but notice that, overall, her studies emphasised mimicry; essentially reproducing likenesses of what was already there. That wasn’t the direction she wanted to go in.

She was absolved of travelling further down that path when her parents’ financial and health difficulties translated into her no longer being able to pay for classes. She returned to Chicago and took a job as a commercial artist.

That might have been the end of Georgia’s art education except for the fact that, once again stricken with a disease – measles, this time, she had to abandon her post. She returned to the family fold to convalesce.

For four years, Georgia did not paint at all; the smell of turpentine made her sick.

Georgia O’Keeffe is one female artist among many; discover a world full of remarkable women painters...

Entering the Art World in Earnest

The strong smell of mineral spirits might have sickened her but Georgia had no problem with charcoal.

Now teaching art at Columbia College in South Carolina, Georgia satisfied her need to create art by sketching charcoal abstractions.

Today, art historians all aver that those drawings were all highly innovative but, with no progressive artistic circle to critique her work at the time – and apparently not trusting her own judgment, Georgia sought the opinion of her friend and former classmate in New York, Anna Pollitzer.

Blown away: to be thoroughly impressed, overwhelmed and excited.

Had that idiom existed in 1916, Anna would have thus described her reactions to each depiction Georgia had sent.

She repaired posthaste to the 291 Gallery, where photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz saw it as his calling to promote the best, brightest most innovative of artistic expressions.

He immediately took possession of Georgia’s sketches, mounting them in a prominent location, where they were sure to be seen. Some weeks later, she strode into his gallery, furious and demanding that he take her charcoals down. He photographed her.

A partnership in art was born.

At first, because he was married, Alfred was just her patron. She moved back to New York and into the studio he provided her with.

Later, as she posed for him, as he photographed her, critiqued and sold her work, they became romantically involved, ultimately marrying, once he had divorced his wife.

Through him, Georgia became acquainted with some of the biggest names in American art: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Paul Strand...

Strangely enough, though a contemporary of Mary Cassatt, their paths never crossed.

It was Paul’s and Alfred’s photography that triggered in Georgia a desire to explore the most delicate organisms in the most minute detail possible. Her first stab at precisionism, the forerunner of modernism, yielded The Green Apple, formerly titled Green Apple on Black Plate.

Georgia felt ill at the smells in her studio
How could Georgia paint when the very smell of her studio sickened her? Image by Bilge Can Gürer from Pixabay

Other works from that period include:

  • Blue and Green Music
  • Oriental Poppies
  • Red Canna – several paintings, some in watercolours and some in oil paint
  • Petunia
  • Jimson Weed
  • Black Iris III

Regrettably, even though she painted many subjects and employed different media, Georgia is renown for her flower paintings and what they might represent. One art historian even averred that one tableau in particular must represent a female in bloom!

Georgia adamantly refuted any such correlations, maintaining she was only painting flowers in close-up.

Although a contributor to the abstract expressionism art movement, Helen Frankenthaler never had to defend her work from such near-libellous claims.

Georgia O’Keeffe, a Mother of Art Movements

Albert Stieglitz worked tirelessly to promote his wife’s art. He featured her canvases in several New York Galleries and a few art museums. He even arranged for a New York Museum to host a retrospective of her work in 1927.

By far the greatest boost to her reputation was his dubious claim that an anonymous buyer in France had purchased no fewer than six of her calla lily tableaux. While her work certainly did make an impact in Paris, it is doubtful that a lone art collector spent quite the amount he boasted to have received.

Nevertheless, the claim made for good publicity and, from then on, Georgia could command a much higher price for her work.

It would seem that his tireless efforts to promote her work must mean that he was wholly devoted to her.

Sadly, his extramarital affair plunged Georgia into a deep depression that left her unable to complete a commission to paint a mural at Radio City Music Hall. She fled the city, finding solace in the wide-open spaces of New Mexico.

Unlike Frida Kahlo, who retaliated to husband’s extramarital activities with affairs of her own, Albert’s ongoing affair drove Georgia to a nervous breakdown that left her unable to paint for over a year.

Finally pulling herself together after a recuperative sojourn in the Bahamas, she returned to New Mexico, purchased a house in a small town and set to work with renewed vigour.

One year after being back to her old self, her husband died. She spent the next three years in New York, settling his affairs after which she permanently relocated to the property she had just purchased. There, she worked continuously until her death, at 98 years old.

When her eyes failed her – effectively leaving her unable to paint, she reinvented herself as a sculptor through the tutelage of one John Hamilton. Now, rather than seeing her creations come to life, she could feel them taking shape beneath her hands.

Georgia never painted water lilies
Although lilies were a favourite subject, unlike Van Gogh, Georgia never painted water lillies Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Why Did Georgia O’Keeffe Paint Skulls?

Georgia O’Keeffe was a ‘what you see is what you get’ artist.

She often said that she painted what she saw. Her work was intended to be representational; she claimed she did not incorporate subtle messages or hidden meanings in any of her tableaux.

Those assertions did nothing to stop art critics and lovers from dissecting her every canvas and inferring that the secretive, convoluted red folds of her lilies were meant to represent intimate womanhood or that her lush, bountiful orchids were symbolic of lush, bountiful women.

Even today, some wrongly maintain that she was fixated on the female form and experience!

It would likewise be a mistake to conclude that Georgia O’Keeffe must have been mad for botany simply because she painted so many flowers – more than 200 of them, with such great care and detail.

Perhaps because these incorrect beliefs persist about her work, so many wonder: why did she also paint skulls?

No matter how hard you try, the sun-bleached head bones of dead animals cannot be made erotic, nor could they, by any stretch of the imagination, have any bearing on the female form.

Even curiouser: why are most of the skulls she painted hovering over the scene, seemingly suspended in the sky?

And the most beguiling question of all: why are some of her skull paintings offset with flowers? Granted, compared to her normal execution, the flowers adjoining those skulls are almost simplistic.

For ostensibly purely representative work, Ms O’Keeffe gave us a lot of food for thought with these surreal depictions.

Must we overthink them?

“To me, bones are as beautiful as anything I know” Georgia O’Keeffe, on why she paints skulls.

Never given to ponderous answers about her art, Ms O’Keeffe explained that bones seem to cut sharply to the centre of being alive.

In the vastness of the desert she inhabited lay a variety of skulls, hers for the taking. She translated the beauty of them that only she could see into something everyone can appreciate.

Deer skulls and cow skulls; great horned skulls with timid flowers lurking nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe gave us a perspective of sun-baked death that few have experienced and even fewer understood.

Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue

This particular canvas, perhaps her most renowned skull painting, was Georgia’s way of filling a niche left by other artists of her day.

Painted in 1931, it reflects a time when people – male authors, mostly, were looking for the Great American Story or trying to write the Great American Novel. These works were meant to reflect the American ideal; to capture the essence of America.

“I came up with the Great American Painting” – Georgia O’Keeffe

The canvas is bisected by a thick black line, on either side of which is a gradient blue tone painted on the diagonal. The vertical outer edges each have a thick red line and, superimposed upon it all is the skull of a young bull whose horns stretch quite nearly from one side of the canvas to the other.

Some Christian art aficionados aver that the bull skull’s positioning – the upper part of the canvas, with its horns reaching from side to side suggest Christ watching over America (represented by the red, white and blue colour scheme).

This dissertation leaves out the purpose of the black line at the centre: what is it meant to represent? Nobody has a good answer to that question.

Art is subjective; at least, so the saying goes and, judging by the debate over this painting, everyone has an opinion of what Ms O’Keeffe meant to give us.

Some don’t believe her tongue in cheek disclaimer that it was merely her contribution to the ‘Great American’ art movement.

Footnote: the 30s was a time of tremendous hardship in the United States.

Already two years into its Great Depression when this painting was realised, dust storms ravaged the plains region in a phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl that caused people to migrate from their homesteads in search of a better living elsewhere.

If we’re given license to interpret Cow Skull: Red, White and Blue, we might point out the clarity of colour and the boldness of the lines could represent how much clearer the air was in Ms O’Keeffe’s desert.

Georgia O'Keeffe was dramatically photogenic
Among all of the art she created, Georgia O'Keeffe was herself a work of art Source: Wikipedia Credit: Alfred Stieglitz

What is Georgia O’Keeffe Best Known For?

Ms O’Keeffe has gifted the world a tremendous body of work: thousands of canvases, of which only a small percentage were her famed flowers, and more than a few sculptures – clay was the medium she turned to when her eyes failed her.

“The thing that makes you want to create is still there” Georgia O’Keeffe

Ms O’Keeffe proves the existence of the ‘mind’s eye’. Completely blind in the last decades of her life, she resorted to feeling her creations come to life beneath her talented hands.

She left behind a trove of photographs taken by her husband, the art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, that depict a woman so calm, centred and balanced that those snaps themselves are works of art.

Finally, she left us a library of quips and quotes. Sometimes humorous, often insightful and always inspiring, such gems as “You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare” is tantamount to laying down the gauntlet: first accomplish something, then declare it.

Georgia O’Keeffe was a muse for other artists.

From the outset, Alfred Stieglitz’s intent in photographing her was to record an individual’s ageing; he could not have chosen a more photogenic subject. After his death, other photographers continued his project; today, there are hundreds of photographs of her, many of them shot in black and white.

She was also a trailblazer for female artists.

Historically, male artists dominate. Who hasn’t heard of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso? By contrast, the art narrative depicts few female artists: Gentileschi and Cassatt are two of the handful of revered artists who were women.

Georgia practised her art at a time of great social evolution; the 19th Century was when women gained more rights and recognition. Bear in mind that, not so long ago, it was thought that women were incapable of creating art; female art students were typically denied any formal training or even access to art schools.

How many women thought: “If Georgia can, so can I!”? We’ll probably never know but her unbinding of norms regarding women surely advanced their independence. After all, a woman going off to live alone in the desert was unthinkable.

Was she afraid to live alone in that vast space, so contrary to the standards for women in her day?

Georgia claimed that terror filled every moment of her life but she refused to let fear control or limit her. Whether the skittering of scorpions kept her from ever sleeping comfortably or the utter silence of the open space haunted her waking moments is not known; we only have her solitary life as a testament to her courage.

That very courage might have cost her the prominence she gained so early in her career.

Alfred Stieglitz was so delighted to have finally found a woman who could execute a credible drawing that he displayed Georgia’s work without asking her permission – indeed, without having ever met her. She stormed into his gallery, a tiny tempest, demanding that he take her work down. Instead, he promoted her relentlessly.

Georgia’s early work, while stunning audiences, left her dissatisfied.

Art school assignments left her feeling like she was merely replicating what was already there; in other words, she was painting was everyone could see with little to no effort. She didn’t want to copy the Old Masters or adopt their style, she wanted to render the world as she saw it.

This foundation of her philosophy of art led to two of Georgia’s most remarkable accomplishments: her hundreds of tableaux depicting the secret depths of flowers – those that are so often accused of alluding to intimate womanhood, and becoming the premier name in American modernism.

Brushstroke by brushstroke, Georgia painted her way to the top of the modernist painters’ heap.

Early modernists were all men: John Marin, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth were already well established by the time of Georgia’s first exhibit; indeed, she was the only female in the rank of modernists.

It should come as no surprise, then, that she would put her unique twist on this art movement, inadvertently forcing male painters to try to match or best her.

To this day her work stands unrivalled in American modernism. To wit, few have heard of or collected Joseph Steller or Charles Sheeler but we wouldn’t be wrong to say that Georgia O’Keeffe is world-renowned.

Being female in a male-dominated world, taking over a movement and making it her own; inspiring legions of women to pick up the brush and give the world their unique visions of art… being the mother of American modernism is not enough to describe Ms O’Keeffe’s greatest accomplishment.

What Georgia is best known for is her fierce independence, her need to create art no matter what, and her idea that the most minute detail deserves the most intense scrutiny, all of which is depicted in her vast body of work.

Georgia O’Keeffe does not receive near the esteem and publicity as mainstream American artists who are male – unlike some of them, there are no web pages dedicated exclusively to her art.

Still, one can find her canvases, depicting building, flowers and still lifes in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, of course, in New Mexico, where she is heralded as a native daughter.

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