Georgia O'Keeffe
Biography of American Modernist Artist.

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Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)


Artistic Training
Flower Paintings
New Mexico
Awards and Retrospectives
Settles in New Mexico
Reputation and Legacy

For analysis of works by American painters like Georgia O'Keeffe,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).



The American painter Georgia O'Keeffe, wife of the noted US photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), was one of the leading modern artists in America during the first half of the 20th century. She is best known for her abstract art - mostly semi-abstract images of flowers - whose sensuous forms are highly suggestive. In addition, she is noted for her urban cityscapes - as well as her landscapes, still life painting and sculpture. As far as movements go, O'Keeffe was initially associated with Precisionism, but her artwork is also associated with both Expressionism and also Surrealism. Although highly successful within the confines of American art, she never became widely known outside America. Examples of O'Keeffe's oil painting include: Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931), Black Iris III (1926), and Black Abstraction (1927) all at the Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York. Sadly, in 1971, her eyesight failed, after which she produced little further work. A museum dedicated to her art opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1997. Along with Grant Wood (1891-1942), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), O'Keeffe is regarded as one of America's top early 20th century painters.

See: Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
See: Abstract Art Movements.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.


Artistic Training

O'Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1887, her parents were dairy farmers. From a young age, she showed a keen interest in art, and duly received lessons in watercolour painting from a local watercolourist. In 1905 she moved to Chicago and enrolled in a two-year arts course at the Art Institute of Chicago, while also working as an illustrator on the side. She also attended a Summer School at the University of Virginia where she was introduced to the cutting edge artistic ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow's teachings encouraged artists to express themselves through harmonious design of shape, line and colour. She was awarded a scholarship by the William Merritt Chase Still Life Competition for an oil painting Mona Shebah. The scholarship was a placement on the New York Art Student League's Summer School.

While attending the summer school, O'Keeffe visited an exhibition of Rodin's watercolours at Gallery 291, which was owned by her future husband to be, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. At this time O'Keeffe also came into contact with the latest art movements, including Abstract Art, Expressionism, Surrealism, New Realism, Orientalism and Precisionist painting. As it was, she leaned towards semi-abstract images with Oriental traditions.



In 1916 O'Keeffe starting teaching at Columbia College in South Carolina. The same year Stieglitz showed some of her works at his gallery, he was particularly impressed with her landscape painting of the American West. Later that year Stieglitz arranged for her to move to New York. She served as a model for many of his photographs and in 1924 they married. The working relationship proved a success: O'Keeffe acted as Stieglitz's muse and he promoted and encouraged her artistic development. During the 1920s O'Keeffe's style became more representational, and - along with the artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935), and the painter/photographer Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), she explored the new Precisionism idiom - with its focus on linear precisionism - which captured urban industrial landscapes in a sharply focused Cubist/Futurist style. Typical works from this period include: Street, New York I (1926, Private Collection) and Radiator Building, Night New York (1927, Detroit Institute of Arts).


Flower Paintings

Other characteristic works of hers during this period, mainly watercolour, include simplified studies of nature - primarily landscapes and flowers. She often painted a series of flower paintings of single blooms in luscious colours. However she soon moved to oils and began creating large-scale close-up views of flowers, that began to resemble semi-abstract art. One such work, Black Iris III (1926) was critised at the time for evoking female genitalia, a similarity O'Keeffe continued to deny, but which was seen as an early form of feminist art and which garnered her support among feminist artists. Meantime, her Precisionist cityscapes of New York were urban, and architecturaly inspired.

Stieglitz's promotional efforts ensured that she received much attention, and her paintings commanded high prices. In 1928 six of her Calla Lilly paintings sold for a whopping $25,000 - the largest amount ever paid for a group of contemporary paintings belonging to a living American artist.

New Mexico

From 1929 onwards, O'Keeffe would spend periods of time working in Mexico, as a reprieve from the noise of New York, and in order to be inspired by the colours of nature. The dry landscape, buildings and animal bones became dominant motives of her works, forms which suggest and record the passing of time. Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931, Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York) is perhaps one of her most famous images. It depicts a weather-beaten cow skull on a background resembling the American flag. Painted at a time when American artists, writers and musicians were interested in creating a uniquely American style and subject matter for their work. Rather than painting lush landscapes as the Regionalist painters Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, O'Keeffe chose to represent the enduring spirit of the American ideal with her skulls. O'Keeffe's reputation continued to grow throughout the 1930s. Other paintings from this time, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, include Black Cross, New Mexico (1929); Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) and Green Mountains, Canada (1932). In the Autumn of 1934 she discovered Ghost Ranch, an area north of Abiquiu, where the desert and dramatic coloured cliffs inspired some of her most famous landscapes (eg. The Black Place, 1943, Art Institute of Chicago).

Awards and Retrospectives

By the 1940s O'Keeffe was inundated with commissions and was granted several retrospective exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York in 1946 (the first the museum ever gave to a female artist). She also received numerous honorary awards and degrees by universities. In the 1940s the Whitney Museum of American art sponsored a project to establish the first category of her art work. While O'Keeffe's abstract work declined after 1930, she returned to it during the mid-1940s, encouraging a younger generation of abstractionists in the process. One of her important sculptures of the time was Abstraction (1946, cast aluminium, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe).

Settles in New Mexico

In 1946 Stieglitz died, and O'Keeffe decided to move permanently to New Mexico. There, she bought an old house which became the subject of many paintings such as Black Patio Door (1955). During the 1960s she created large scale 'landscapes' of clouds, using impressionist techiques, dabs of colour and the brushstroke was looser. These paintings could be anything up to 30 foot wide. By the 1970s her eye sight began to fail, completing her last unassisted painting in oil - The Beyond, in 1972. She continued to paint in watercolour and draw in charcoal unassisted for another few years, and also experimented with pottery. She died in Santa Fe in 1984.


The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, designed by the architect Richard Gluckman opened in 1997 and holds many of the artist's paintings, sculptures, watercolours and etchings. In total, the museum has over 3,000 works dating between 1901 and 1984. Although O'Keeffe has been an influential figure in American painting, and one of the more innovative of American sculptors, she remains controversial. The influential art critic Clement Greenberg once commented of her painting, that it added up to little more than fine art photography. Those who admire her work are often divided between her abstractions and more figurative works, the former presenting the artist as progressive, the latter as more traditional. The artist herself was often conflicted, which explains why she often moved between the two. Today, O'Keeffe's works hang in the world's best art museums, including: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, and Yale University Art Gallery.

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