1905–1908: Art School Years
In the fall of 1905 Georgia moved in with her Uncle Charles and Aunts Lola and Ollie, who lived near the Art Institute in Chicago. Living with her relatives enabled Georgia to pursue her art studies without the added worry of expenses incurred living on her own. At the Art Institute she had the opportunity to study with John Vanderpool, whom she later felt was one of the few true teachers she had ever known. O’Keeffe also had to take a course in anatomy, painting nude subjects–a prospect that was emotionally difficult for her at first. She had a strong emotional reaction upon seeing her first male nude, but eventually she became accustomed to them despite the lasting impression this first experience made on her.
The curriculum at the Art Institute emphasized the need to master realism, an objective that did not suit Georgia’s aspirations. Nonetheless, she did do well during her first year, and was ranked well in the extremely competitive classroom. Unfortunately, she could not return in the fall of 1906 because she fell ill to typhoid fever and was bedridden. Georgia survived the life- threatening disease, but her illness had been severe and all her hair had fallen out. She spent one year recuperating in Virginia home, where she enjoyed leading the neighborhood children on walks and taking walks by herself.
After recovering from her illness, in 1907 O’Keeffe enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City, attending classes with William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora, and Kenyon Cox. The Art Students League, founded in 1875 by students from the National Academy of Design, encouraged cooperation rather than competition among its members. The atmosphere of New York City and the adventuresome student life appealed to Georgia, who also enjoyed the curriculum at the Art Students League, which was less conservative than the one at the Art Institute. Chase for example, taught his students how to express detail in a simple and direct manner, often with a single brushstroke–a technique that had been influenced by European impressionism. On the whole, Chase emphasized freedom, but within limitations.
Georgia was able to imitate her teacher well, as is exemplified in her Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot (1908). She was recognized for this painting and was awarded a scholarship to the Art Students League’s summer school at Lake George, New York. While Georgia started to grasp Chase’s methods, her visits to galleries, such as Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, exposed her to the most modern techniques and philosophical currents in art. At 291, O’Keeffe quietly attempted to comprehend Rodin’s drawings while Stieglitz hotly debated with her friends from the Art Students League. Though strongly influenced by her teachers and the other artwork she saw, Georgia recognized the need to focus on her own development and the aspects of painting she thought important in her composition. She paid particular attention to the brightness and clarity of her colors, and discovered a way to prepare a fresh white basis on her canvases.
Despite her success as a student, Georgia did feel pressure from her mail colleagues at the Art Students League. Once, when she refused her friend Eugene Speicher’s request to pose for him, he adamantly stated that she had no prospects as an artist and that he would end up a great painter while she would teach art at a girl’s school. The fact that Georgia eventually agreed to pose for Speicher demonstrated that she was at least cognizant of her societal constraints as a woman. However, she did enjoy her friendships with male students, often feeling closer to them than with female students. At least one of these relationships developed into more than a friendship. Speicher and O’Keeffe continued their correspondence, and he urged her to accompany him to France. However, Georgia never felt a strong desire to go to France, and she certainly had her own goals that she wanted to realize independently.
Although Georgia was able to successfully replicate the works of her teachers and traditional artists during these years, she was frustrated at her inability to satisfy her own artistic urges. The methods and philosophical and theoretical models presented to her inhibited her from painting subjectively. In addition, O’Keeffe realized that she faced major obstacles to a career within a male- dominated art world. Most women, regardless of their talents, could not overcome the barriers that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens. In the art world, this meant that becoming art teachers could be their only possible aspiration. Georgia therefore enjoyed her experience as an art student, but felt pessimistic about her prospective career even after two years of study at art schools.
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