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Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter and draughtsman. She decided to become an artist when she was 12. From 1905 to 1906 she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1907 she went to New York to study oil, pastel and watercolour painting at the Art Students League. She worked there for a year with William Merritt Chase and won the Chase Still Life Scholarship. In 1908 she saw the first American exhibitions of the work of Auguste Rodin (watercolours) and of Henri Matisse at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, known as 291, run by Alfred Stieglitz.

Between 1908 and 1910 O’Keeffe worked as a freelance commercial artist (drawing lace and embroidery advertisements) in Chicago. During summer 1912 she attended a drawing class run by Alon Bement (1876–1954) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Through him she became interested in the anti-academic system of art education, developed by Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) during the 1890s from Japanese principles of two-dimensional design. This system was saturated with Symbolist notions of ‘visual music’ and synaesthesia, and for the next six years O’Keeffe taught it at schools and colleges in Virginia, South Carolina and Texas.

O’Keeffe returned to New York in autumn 1914 to work for six months with Dow at the Teachers College, Columbia University. She became increasingly aware of European modernism, seeing work by Picasso, Georges Braque and Francis Picabia at 291. By summer 1915 she had twice read in translation Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich, 1912; Eng. trans. by M. T. H. Sadler as the Art of Spiritual Harmony (1914)) by Vasily Kandinsky, Cubism and Post-Impressionism by Arthur Jerome Eddy and issues of the magazines Camera Work and 291. In late 1915 she produced a breakthrough series of large charcoal abstractions (c. 625×225 mm) from, she said, the ‘things in my head’. Each of these gender-based expressions of self contain concrete, if unconscious, references to the plant and wave motifs of Art Nouveau, for example Special No. 9 (Houston, TX, Menil Col.). The organic geometries in this series—of ovoid, ellipse, vertical stalk, spiral, seedpod, tendril and arabesque—exist like armatures beneath her later landscapes, flowers, skyscrapers, stars, trees, Penitente crosses of the Hispanic Catholic fundamentalists, animal bones, mesas and clouds. Stieglitz saw the series in January 1916. Always in search of the new and determined to recognize and foster an indigenous American art, he exhibited them at 291 (23 May–5 July 1916). In 1917 he held a one-woman show of her work, which included several Texas landscape watercolours, including The Evening Star and Light Coming on the Plains series (e.g. Light Coming on the Plains II, 1917; Fort Worth, TX, Amon Carter Mus.)

O’Keeffe moved to New York in 1918 with the promise of Stieglitz’s financial support. They married in 1924, and he exhibited her work almost yearly in New York until his death in 1946. O’Keeffe became interested in the aesthetics of photography as a direct result of posing so often for Stieglitz’s camera. She also knew and valued the work of other important photographers associated with 291, especially Edward J. Steichen, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. In 1919, in such paintings as Fifty-ninth Street Studio (artist’s estate, see O’Keeffe, pl. 16) and Inside Red Canna (New York, Michael J. Scharf priv. col., see Callaway, 1987, pl. 7, p. 7), she started to isolate certain elements from the photographic process to serve a new goal: ‘objectivity’; these notably included cropped images, isolated detail, telephoto, magnified close-up and the lens malfunctions common to old view cameras such as convergence, halation and flare. She used them for abstraction and expression, however, not verisimilitude. The earliest large close-up flower painting was Petunia No. 2 (1924; Santa Fe, NM, Peters Gal.). Her New York cityscapes of the late 1920s contain the greatest array of photo-optic characteristics. The first, New York with Moon (1925; Lugano, Col. Thyssen-Bornemisza), has a halating street lamp; in City Night (1926; Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.) the leaning skyscrapers are extreme variations of convergence; The Shelton with Sunspots (1926; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.) is based on lens flare. Her original, metaphysical vision of city architecture may be characterized as urban sublime.

By 1925 O’Keeffe had developed a style from a unique amalgam of Symbolism, abstraction and photography. Few formal sketches are known to exist for her paintings, although she made many independent drawings of her subjects. She applied oil paint sparely and thinly, but the exquisite and subtle syntax of her facture may be seen in Black Iris III (1926) and Ranchos Church (1930; both New York, Met.). From 1929 she spent most summers painting in New Mexico, reinvigorating her art with the colours, forms and themes of the Southwest. Among the most original of these canvases are Black Cross, New Mexico (1929; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), Summer Days (1936; priv. col., see the painter’s Georgia O’Keeffe (1976), pl. 7) and Pelvis with Shadow and Moon (1943; priv. col., see 1987 exh. cat.).

In 1949 O’Keeffe moved permanently to Abiquiu, formerly a Native American village, near Santa Fe. Her paintings from the 1950s and 1960s were, for the most part, reworkings of old ideas. In her long and, from 1971, blind old age she learnt to be a hand-potter. During her 98 years she received many honours and awards, including the American Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts.

Sarah Whitaker Peters
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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