Georgia O'keeffe Biography

Born: November 15, 1887
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
Died: March 6, 1986
Santa Fe, New Mexico

American painter

The American painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) developed a distinctive art form that includes startling details of plant forms, bleached bones, and landscapes of the New Mexico desert—all created with natural clarity.

The young artist

Georgia O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887, to Francis and Ida O'Keeffe. She had six siblings, and the family lived on a farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Georgia attended the Sacred Heart Academy, and here she had a chance to learn about drawing and painting. She also attended Saturday art lessons. Her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, and she attended Chatham Episcopal Institute. Here she excelled in the school's art program.

In 1904 Georgia graduated and moved to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois (1905), and the Art Students League in New York City (1907–1908). She worked briefly as a commercial artist in Chicago, and in 1912 she became interested in the principles of Oriental design. After working as a public school art supervisor in Amarillo, Texas (1912–1914), she attended art classes conducted by Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University in New York City. She began to use Dow's system of art education, based on frequent themes in Oriental art, in her teacher-training courses at West Texas State Normal College, where she served as department head (1916–1918).

Career as an artist begins

In 1916 Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the well-known New York photographer and supporter of modernism (a style of art that went against established norms), exhibited some of O'Keeffe's abstract (a type of art that does not strongly represent real objects) drawings. In 1924 O'Keeffe and Stieglitz were married.

Lake George, Coat and Red (1919), a chief example of O'Keeffe's early abstract style, was a roughly brushed composition in which a twisted, mysterious form looms against a rainbow-colored sky. Early in her career she developed a personal, extremely polished style, favoring abstract subject matter such as flower details and severe architectural themes. Many of her paintings were dramatic, sharp-focus enlargements of botanical (flower or plant life) details.

Between 1926 and 1929 O'Keeffe painted a group of views of New York City. New York Night (1929) transformed skyscrapers into patterned, glittering structures. More architecturally characteristic were such paintings as Lake George Barns (1926) and Ranchos Church, Taos (1929). These simple buildings, further simplified in her painting, were America's anonymous folk architecture; in these forms O'Keeffe found a peace that contrasted with the frantic city environment.

New Mexico and new artistic subjects

In 1929 O'Keeffe began spending time in New Mexico; the region's dramatic mesas, ancient Spanish architecture, vegetation, and dry terrain became the focus of her art. Her subjects were simple and basic. Even her stories of death in the desert—a sunbleached skull lying in the sand or attached to a post (as in Cow's Skull with Red, 1936)—were preserved. She regarded these whitened remains as symbols of the desert, nothing more. The dried animal bones and wooden crucifixes of the region that appear in her desert ( Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929) were disturbing imaginings.

In 1945 O'Keeffe bought an old adobe house in New Mexico; she moved there after her husband's death in 1946. The house served as a frequent subject in paintings such as Black Patio Door (1955) and Patio with Cloud (1956).

Many of O'Keeffe's paintings of the 1960s, large-scale patterns of clouds and landscapes seen from the air, reflected a romanticized view of nature reminiscent of her early themes. These large paintings culminated in a twenty-four-foot mural on canvas, Sky above Clouds IV (1965). Her paintings of the 1970s were intense, powerful representations of a black rooster.

A portrayal of O'Keeffe, In Cahoots with Coyote from Terry Tempest Williams's 1994 book An Unspoken Hunger, painted a vivid narrative of the artist's intense interest in the beloved New Mexico she first visited in 1917. Her search for the ideal color, light, stones, and parched bones, transformed her desert country excursions into a personal closeness she felt with the perfection around her. Once, in a canyon bottom, she was so absorbed by the sight that she laid her head back Coyote-fashion and howled at the sky, terrifying her companions nearby who feared she was

Georgia O'Keeffe. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation.
Georgia O'Keeffe.
Reproduced by permission of the
Corbis Corporation
injured. "I can't help it—it's all so beautiful," was her response.

The end of a brilliant career

O'Keeffe's boldly original American works spanned a wide vision from taut city towers to desertscapes in such vivid hues and form "as to startle the senses," according to Williams's narrative. O'Keeffe painted until a few weeks before her death in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 6, 1986, at the age of ninety-eight.

Many of O'Keeffe's works found a permanent home among the adobe buildings of Sante Fe. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, opened in 1997 to hold more of her pastels, drawings, paintings, and sculptures than any other museum.

For More Information

Brooks, Philip. "Georgia O'Keeffe: An Adventurous Spirit." New York: F. Watts, 1995.

Eldredge, Charles C. Georgia O'Keeffe: American and Modern. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Kucharczyk, Emily Rose. Georgia O'Keeffe. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 2002.

Nicholson, Lois P. Georgia O'Keeffe. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1995.

Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

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