"Finally, a woman on paper!" exclaimed Alfred Stieglitz in 1916, after he looked at Georgia O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings. As a prominent photographer and art gallery director, Stieglitz was able to recognize O’Keeffe’s talent and potential as an artist. Under his tutelage and sponsorship, O’Keeffe was able to establish the artistic career of which she had long dreamed. Although independent and determined, early experiences as an art student in an art world that favored men made O’Keeffe pessimistic that she would ever be able to make a living as an artist.
As the second child of seven children, Georgia never commanded much of her parents’ attention, and out of all the children, her character was most anomalous. She never cared to conform and was outspoken and stubborn in her non- conventionality. In fact, the memories she harbored from her early childhood in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, had to do more with her relationship with her physical environment on her large farm than with people.
Coming from an educated family, Georgia’s mother presided over the education of her children, sending her daughters to have art lessons when Georgia was ten years old. By the time she was in eighth grade, Georgia had already announced her goal to become an artist. Her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1903, and she finished her high school education at Chatham Episcopal Institute. She benefited from her art lessons there, and after graduation decided to pursue an art education at the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League in New York City. Although she enjoyed her education, and her opportunity in New York City to be exposed to the contemporary art world, she felt stifled by the emphasis on realism and replicating old masters.
In 1908, when Georgia returned from her studies in New York, she realized the financial difficulties that her family had been experiencing, and knew she could no longer return to art school. She therefore worked as a commercial artist in Chicago and later moved back home to help her mother. While back in Virginia, she was inspired by Alon Bement’s art classes, which taught the philosophy of Arthur Wesley Dow. She made the decision to accept an art teaching position in Amarillo, Texas. This experience, and the attraction which she had for Texas’ desert landscape, fueled her desire to return to that region. However, in 1914, she decided instead to pursue further study at Columbia Teachers College and at the Art Students League, where she met her lifelong friend Anita Pollitzer. In the fall of 1915, Georgia went back to teach in Columbia, South Carolina, but she continued to produce artwork, sending it occasionally to Pollitzer. Some charcoal drawings were good enough that Pollitzer took them to Stieglitz, who agreed to exhibit them.
After this point, Georgia’s career in the art world started, and after a brief period teaching in Texas again, she returned to New York in 1918. With Stieglitz’s assistance she launched her career as an artist, beginning to paint full-time and developing a romantic relationship with her mentor, whom she eventually married in 1924. During the 1920s, Georgia painted many of her famous flowers, which caused controversy upon first exhibition because of their overt sensuality. She also painted scenes of New York City and Lake George, the two places where she and Stieglitz spent most of their time together.
However, in 1929, O’Keeffe was restless, and decided to return to the southwestern United States for artistic inspiration and to see the landscape to which she was attached. She was excited about the desert, hills, skies, and culture, which was predominantly Roman Catholic and Hispanic. The Catholicism she encountered was extremely spiritual, something she strove to incorporate in her art. She painted the crosses and the mystical adobe churches she encountered. She also enjoyed painting the animal bones she found in the dessert, set against backgrounds of marvelous blue skies and colorful hills.
O’Keeffe returned to New Mexico almost every summer, and during the winter exhibited her paintings in New York. In 1940, she purchased a house at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. Although it was difficult for her to leave Stieglitz every year, they both realized that it was necessary for her to leave for her creative vitality. In 1946, she left for New Mexico, and a few weeks later, Stieglitz died. Georgia spent the rest of the 1940s and 1950s living in New Mexico, traveling, and settling Stieglitz’s estate. She continued to paint, but had to give it up when her eyesight deteriorated. During the 1970s, a young artist, Juan Hamilton, became her companion, and encouraged her to paint again with the help of an assistant. However, her health continued to decline, and on March 6, 1986, she died.
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