Georgia O’Keeffe’s life spanned almost an entire century, from 1887 to 1986. She lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the bulk of the Cold War. She also lived through an exciting period of art history–the early modern era–when traditional techniques of art production were discarded and revolutionary ideas prevailed. Artists such as Matisse and Picasso were setting new artistic parameters. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited these painters, as well as others of the avant-garde, at his New York gallery, 291. Moreover, Stieglitz was part of a social circle of artists, activists, and writers who met frequently, and discussed their theories and ideas.
The growth of the modern art movement paralleled and reflected upon the industrial expansion taking place across America. Born into the swiftly industrializing world of the late nineteenth century, O’Keeffe witnessed how technological progress gave birth to new industries, forever changing America’s social and physical landscape. While industrialists expanded their monopolies and facilitated industrial expansion, and newly empowered corporations fought bitter labor battles with struggling workers, the O’Keeffe farm remained serene and remote from both the beneficial and detrimental aspects of America’s Gilded Age.
While O’Keeffe was a young adult studying art in the early twentieth century, the woman’s suffrage movement was at its peak, and many of her friends were activists in the movement. Indeed, much of the success of O’Keeffe’s art came as a result of her position as not just an important painter, but an important woman painter, in the art world. While she was studying at places like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League, many of her male colleagues assumed that the women studying alongside them would become only art teachers, while the men became famous artists. In order to gain success, therefore, O’Keeffe had to overcome this additional hurdle of societal expectations. Even when she had gained prestige, people still associated her art as being representative of women’s art.
Although O’Keeffe was not personally involved in the women’s rights movement, her paintings and her position as a female artist became important to activists advocating the rights of women. As the suffragists of the early twentieth century marveled at O’Keeffe’s work, the activists of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s looked to her work for inspiration, and indeed, she reached a new level of popularity during this decade. However, O’Keeffe refrained from being politically active herself, and spent much of her career escaping the world around her, secluding herself at her home in New Mexico in order to focus intensely and solely on her art. Occasionally she did voice her opinions, many of which implied that she had pacifistic tendencies, perhaps as a result of living in such a period of global conflict. Although O’Keeffe remained secluded in her focus on producing art, the world around her did influence her artwork, even though the appearance of this influence is not as obvious as in the case of other painters.
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