In a farmhouse in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887, Ida and Francis O’Keeffe became parents to a baby girl. They named her Georgia Totto after her Hungarian grandfather, George Victor Totto. He had emigrated to the United States, escaping persecution because of his role in a Hungarian uprising against Austrian rule. In America, he met his future wife, Isabel Wyckoff, who traced her descendants to Dutch settlers in the mid-seventeenth century. They moved to Sun Prairie in 1858. Although the Totto farm was prosperous, farming was too difficult, and George Totto felt the desire to return to his native Hungary and claim his family fortune. Isabel was burdened with the responsibility for six children after George’s departure, but she did not resent him.
The O’Keeffes, an immigrant family from Ireland, had settled in the same town of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, ten years before the Tottos, in 1848. Georgia’s mother and father, Ida and Francis O’Keeffe, grew up as neighbors. When they were older, both families favored a marriage between the two and a consolidation of the two farms. Although Ida aspired to become a doctor, she obediently and reluctantly agreed to the marriage in 1884.
Coming from an educated family, Ida promoted the education and intellectual development of her children, especially her daughters. Indeed, Georgia’s mother spent much time educating all of her children, but Georgia was not the favorite and consequently received less attention from her mother. Growing up in a family with five brothers and sisters, Georgia’s character developed to be quiet, introspective, and independent. While she was stimulated by her mother’s academic supervision, her overlooked position in the family facilitated her own attention to material surroundings as opposed to personal relationships. Colors and objects fascinated Georgia from an early age, and her life on the farm fostered a close relationship with nature and an understanding of natural processes. She developed a determined personality and had already dedicated herself to becoming an artist by the time she was in eighth grade. In an effort to promote artistic development in her daughters, Ida started to organize art lessons for her daughters, starting when Georgia was around twelve years old.
In 1901, Georgia continued her formal high school education at the exclusive Sacred Heart Academy, where she was exposed to the harsh discipline and criticism of nuns who disregarded privacy and enforced a rigorous routine. Despite the strict environment, Georgia she benefited from the art classes and was awarded a medal of improvement in art. She excelled in other subjects, such as ancient history, algebra, physiography, and English. In 1902, her sisters enrolled in the school, and Georgia moved to Madison to live with her Aunt Lola. Her parents had left their children to travel to Virginia, where they wanted to relocate the family. Although their business was prosperous, Ida and Francis thought that moving to a warmer climate would lessen Francis’ chance of developing tuberculosis, a disease that had killed his brothers. Meanwhile, Georgia spent her last year in Wisconsin, attending Madison High School, where she was first prompted to look closely at flowers in an art class. Fascinated by the colors and shades, this memory significantly influenced her later painting.
At the age of fifteen, Georgia moved with her family to Williamsburg, Virginia, marking the end of her childhood years. Departing from her small Wisconsin town was a young artist, stubborn in her non-conventional habits, self-reliant, and ready for new experiences. Her siblings later described her as being authoritative in her actions and viewpoints, insisting on driving the family buggy, and stubbornly insisting that God was female. Georgia’s family life at the farm had been peaceful and stable economically, a prospect that would change after the move. However, in her adult life she never became excessively nostalgic about these years, and her later relationships with family members continued to be relatively detached.
Upon moving to Virginia in 1903, Georgia enrolled at Chatham Episcopal Institute, a boarding school. Despite the fact that she did not dress or act like the other fashionable and socially sophisticated students, she was accepted and well liked because of her indifference to established norms. She taught the other students how to play poker, was constantly engaging in practical jokes, and drew caricatures of the teachers. Later she became the art editor of the school yearbook, and the other editors wrote the following poem about her:
A girl who would be different in habit, style, and dress, A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men–and boys still less.
O is for O’Keeffe, an artist divine; Her paintings are perfect and her drawings are fine.
More importantly, at Chatham, Georgia met an exceptional art teacher, Mrs. Willis, who had been educated at the Art Students League in New York City. Willis recognized Georgia’s talents and individuality, overlooked her behavioral tribulations, and permitted her to work at her own pace. While Georgia was at school, she enjoyed summers with her family vacationing at the York River, and her family lived comfortably in a large frame house in Williamsburg. However, Francis had not been able to establish a stable career for himself, and he experienced a series of failed business ventures. The family wealth gained from selling the farm in Wisconsin had diminished to the point that the family had to move to a smaller house and take on boarders. There was still enough money, however, to finance Georgia’s higher education. Consequently, in 1905, after she received her high school diploma, her parents agreed to send her to Chicago to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.