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Modern Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe played a pivotal role in the development of American modernism and its relationship with European vanguard movements of the early 20th century. Producing a substantial body of work over eight decades, she sought to capture the emotion and power of objects through abstracting the natural world. Aware of own importance as an artist from early on, she used signs, symbols and a palette unlike any artist before her. Alfred Stieglitz identified her as the first female American Modernist, whose paintings of flowers, barren landscapes and close up still-lifes have become a part of the mythology and iconography of the American artistic landscape. Her vibrant palette, rigorous formalism and explorations of scale makes her signature style among the most recognized internationally.

Key Ideas / Information
  • O'Keeffe was one of the first American artists to adapt abstraction to American motifs. Heavily influenced by the cropping techniques of Paul Strand's photography, she managed to both synthesize aspects of art that was being produced around her and forge her own energetic style.
  • Her unique vision did not adhere to any art movement; rather she synthesized abstraction and realism to produce works, often in series that distilled her formal technique and emotive content.
  • Her technical contributions include use of intense color, linear precision and experimentation with the scale of objects, as well as maintaining a reductive quality and formal balance in her compositions.
Childhood and Early Training
Georgia O'Keeffe was born the second of seven children and received early encouragement by her mother to study art. O'Keeffe was fortunate to come from a family where female education was a tradition. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905 and studied with John Vanderpoel.

In the fall of 1907, O'Keeffe moved to New York City and attended classes at the Arts Students League, studying under William Merritt Chase. While there, she frequented exhibitions at Gallery 291, which was owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. For the first time O'Keeffe was exposed to popular European artists, such as Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse.

In 1912, after pursuing a career teaching art, O'Keeffe attended drawing classes at the University of Virginia's summer school. Her teacher, Alon Bement, professed an innovative teaching style that was heavily influenced by the artist Arthur Wesley Dow. While teaching at Columbia College in South Carolina in 1915, O'Keeffe began to experiment with Dow's theory of self-exploration through art. She took natural forms, such as ferns, clouds and waves, and began a small series of charcoal drawings that simplified them into expressive, abstract combinations of shapes and lines. After completing the series, O'Keeffe mailed a few of them to her friend Anita Pollitzer, a former classmate, who brought the drawings to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz in January 1916.

Mature Period
Recognizing her great potential, Stieglitz began a correspondence with O'Keeffe. Unbeknownst to O'Keeffe, he exhibited ten of these charcoals at his Gallery 291. He sent her photographs of her drawings on exhibit and this began their professional relationship. While O'Keeffe continued to teach, she returned to New York in 1917 to view her first solo exhibition, which was again arranged by Stieglitz at 291. During this time, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz began a love affair that would last until his death. In 1918, Stieglitz offered to financially support O'Keeffe for one year so that she could live and paint in New York. She took a leave of absence from her teaching position and for the first time dedicated herself solely to making art. After Stieglitz divorced his first wife, he married O'Keeffe in 1924.

During the 1920s, Stieglitz introduced O'Keeffe to his circle of friends, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen, many of who championed modernism in the United States. O'Keeffe was profoundly influenced by Strand's photography and the camera's ability to behave like a magnifying lens. She began making large-scale paintings of natural forms at close range, and, during this time, also switched from watercolors to oil paint. In addition to flowers, O'Keeffe depicted New York skyscrapers and other architectural forms. By the mid-1920s, O'Keeffe was already recognized as one of the most significant American artists of the time and her art began to command high prices.

O'Keeffe's fascination with the landscape of New Mexico began in 1929, when she was a guest of famous arts patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan, at Dodge's ranch near Taos. O'Keeffe became enamored with New Mexico's landscape of vistas and barren land, returning every summer until 1949 to paint. Works produced from this landscape captured the beauty of the desert, vast skies, distinctive architectural forms, and bones, which she collected from the desert. O'Keeffe's eventual purchase of two properties in New Mexico further connected her to the land, often referred to now as O'Keeffe country.

During the 1930s and 1940s, O'Keeffe's popularity continued to grow and she was honored with two important retrospectives, first in 1943 at the Art Institute of Chicago and then in 1946 at MoMA. While she was spending the summer of 1946 in New Mexico, Stieglitz suffered a massive stroke. Though married, O'Keeffe had spent ample amounts of time away from him, living independently and working on her art. She quickly returned to New York to be with him as his health deteriorated.

Late Period and Death
In 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death, O'Keeffe permanently moved to New Mexico. In the 1950s, she produced a series of works that featured the architectural forms of her patio wall and door at Abiquiu, one of her two homes near Santa Fe. O'Keeffe began to travel extensively, gathering further inspiration for her work. She received many accolades, including a membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Despite waning popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, a retrospective held by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970 revived her career and brought her to the attention of a new generation of women in the era of feminism. Despite failing eyesight, O'Keeffe continued to produce art, working in watercolor, pencil and clay throughout the 1970s. Though she had lost her central vision by the age of 84, she continued to paint. This was reflected in her last paintings, which consist of simple abstract lines and shapes and hearken back to her early charcoal drawings.

Georgia O'Keeffe spent eighty years constructing her life as an artist who helped pave the way for the development of modernism in America. She produced over 2000 works that showed the evolution of a true master by creating her own unique style based in the synthesis of formalism and the abstraction of nature. O'Keeffe never acquiesced to trends in the art world; rather she always remained committed to her own personal vision. Her vibrant and dynamic compositions are a prominent part of both national and international museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is the first museum in the United States dedicated to a female artist.


Below are Georgia O'Keeffe's major influences, and the people and ideas that she influenced in turn.

Arthur Wesley Dow
Alon Bement
Auguste Rodin
Wassily Kandinsky
Alfred Stieglitz
Paul Strand
Asian Art
Art Nouveau
Georgia O\'Keeffe
Years Worked: circa 1907 - 1984
Judy Chicago
Andy Warhol
Alfred Stieglitz
Paul Strand
American Modernist Painting

"I said to myself 'I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me- shadows and ideas so near to me- so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down.' I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught."

"When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else."

"It is easier for me to paint it than to write about it and I would so much rather people would look at it than read about it. I see no reason for painting anything that can be put into any other form as well."

"Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my efforts to create an equivalent with paint color for the world, life as I see it."

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum - Santa Fe, NM