Painters Every Photographer Should Know – Georgia O’Keeffe

Painters Every Photographer Should Know, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ram's Head painting

For many, the word southwest conjures up familiar motifs like adobe buildings, cactus flowers in the desert, and even the ever-so-iconic abandoned animal skull in an otherwise barren landscape. One of the artists most closely associated with this vision of the American southwest is Wisconsin native Georgia O’Keeffe. Though she was born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887, there are few artists as closely associated with the iconic imagery of the American southwestern landscape as O’Keeffe.

Born in a farmhouse to dairy farmer parents, Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida Totto O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe was the first daughter and second of seven children. Though she came from farming roots Georgia O’Keeffe demonstrated an interest in the arts from an early age. As a child, she enrolled in the Town Hall School in Wisconsin and began her artistic studies under local watercolorist Sara Mann. She would later go on to attend high school in Madison, Wisconsin. Living with her aunt while her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, she completed her high school education at Chatham Hall. After high school, she continued her studies in art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York where she studied under William Merritt Chase. While at the Art Students League, she won a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, New York.

In 1908, O’Keeffe attend an exhibition of Rodin’s watercolors at the then up-and-coming gallery 291. Owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, gallery 291 was located at 291 5th Avenue in New York and was famous for showcasing a smattering of then avant-garde European artists along with pioneering artistic photographers from that era. The year 1908 was also the year that market O’Keeffe’s first abandonment of her artistic pursuits. She stopped painting until 1912 when she was inspired to pick it up again after attending a summer school class at the University of Virginia. Under the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow and Alon Bement her work took a dramatically different course. Dow’s belief was that art should express the artist’s personal ideas and feelings; that an artistic subject was best realized through harmonious arrangements of line, color, and notan (the Japanese system of lights and darks). From 1012-1914 O’Keefe taught art in the public school system of Amarillo, Texas before going to New York to attend Columbia University and further her artistic studies under Dow.

The fall of 1915 found her teaching at Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina and she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings. Now considered pivotal to her career and some of the most innovative American art from the time period, she mailed some of these drawings to a former classmate at Columbia, who in turned showed them to Stieglitz in January of 1916.

Stieglitz had told O’Keeffe he was planning to exhibit her charcoal drawings but neglected to tell her when. When she first visited Gallery 291 in 1908 she did not speak with Stieglitz directly and, upon her visit to the gallery again in April of 1916, was surprised to find ten of her drawings on display. She confronted Stieglitz over the drawings but agreed to let them remain on exhibit for the duration of the show. In June 1917, two months after the United States declared war on Germany, Stieglitz closed Gallery 291 with a solo show of O’Keeffe’s work, including oil paintings and watercolors completed in Texas. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe corresponded frequently beginning in 1916, and in June 1918, she accepted Stieglitz’s invitation to move to New York. According to Wikipedia, “The two were deeply in love, and shortly after her arrival, they began living together, even though the then married Stieglitz was 23 years her senior. That year Stieglitz first took O’Keeffe to his family home at the village of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and they spent part of every year there until 1929, when O’Keeffe spent the first of many summers painting in New Mexico. In 1924 Stieglitz’s divorce was finally approved by a judge, and within four months he and O’Keeffe married.”

Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe in 1917 and by the time of his retirement in 1935 had amassed some 350 portraits of her. After their marriage until Stieglitz’s death in 1946, Stieglitz promoted O’Keeffe’s work, organizing annual exhibitions of her art at The Anderson Galleries (1923–1925), The Intimate Gallery (1925–1929), and An American Place (1929–1946).

Shortly after 1918, O’Keeffe began working primarily in oil, moving away from the primarily watercolor work she did in the earlier 1910’s. By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe shifted to making large-scale paintings of natural forms at close range, as if seen through a magnifying lens. In 1924 she painted her first large-scale flower painting Petunia, No. 2, which was first exhibited in 1925. She also completed a significant body of paintings of New York buildings, such as City Night and New York—Night, 1926, and Radiator Bldg—Night, New York, 1927. Starting in the mid-1920’s O’Keeffe started painting these New York skyscrapers and also a series large-scale flowers, shown as if seen close up. It was during this time that she had become recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists. It was also during this time that her work became embraced by the feminist movement. Though her work from this time was mostly abstract, pieces like Black Iris III (1926) evoke a veiled representation of female genitalia while also accurately depicting the center of an iris. O’Keeffe rejected this feminist view of her artwork, often saying that it sounded too much like what men wrote about art during that period. By the late 1920’s, her work commanded high prices. Six of her calla lily paintings were slated to go on sale for $25,000 which, at that time, was the largest sum ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist. Though the sale fell through, Stieglitz’s promotion of the sale stirred up a lot of attention from the media.

Searching for a new source of inspiration, a train trip in May, 1929 with Rebecca Strand to Santa Fe provided just what she needed. She setup studio in Taos, New Mexico and began going on many pack trips. Some work from this time includes “The Lawrence Tree” completed in 1929 at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and several paintings of the St. Francis of Assisi Missionary at Ranchos de Taos. Between 1929 and 1949, O’Keeffe continued her work in New Mexico. She started collecting objects to paint, such as rocks and bones, and also went camping often with friends. In 1961, she went on a rafting trip down the Colorado River near Glen Canyon, Utah with photographers Eliot Porter and Todd Webb.

In 1932, O’Keeffe was slated to complete a mural project at Radio City Music Hall but late in 1932, O’Keeffe suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on, in part, because the project had fallen behind schedule. She was hospitalized in early 1933 and did not paint again until January 1934. She traveled to Bermuda in the spring of 1933 and 1934 to recover, but returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934. In August of 1934, she visited Ghost Ranch, a 21,000 acre land grant area north of Abiquiu, New Mexico. She decided immediately to live there and, in 1940, purchased a house on the ranch property. She would later also purchase another house in Abiquiu but she is most closely associated with the Ghost Ranch location. Many people refer to this area of New Mexico as “O’Keeffe Country” and much of her work from this time highlighted the natural beauty of the desert. Today that location houses an education and retreat center and is often used as a set for movies. In 1977, O’Keeffe wrote of Ghost Ranch: “[the] cliffs over there are almost painted for you — you think — until you try to paint them.” She had many guests and visitors at her ranch house over the years, including Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Joni Mitchell, Alan Ginsberg, and Ansel Adams.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, O’Keeffe’s reputation and popularity continued to grow and she earned several noted commissions, including one for the Dole Pineapple Company. She completed several paintings featuring a cow’s skull adorned with various wildflowers against a desert background, including “Summer Days” (1936) which became one of her most famous paintings. During the 1940’s she had retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago (1943) and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1946, which was the first retrospective held at MOME for a female artist. She was also awarded many honorary degrees and awards during this time and the Whitney Museum of American Art sponsored a project to catalogue of her work.

Shortly after O’Keeffe arrived for the summer in New Mexico in 1946, Stieglitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis. She flew to New York to be with him, and he died on July 13, 1946. After his death, she spent the next three years mostly in New York settling his estate but moved to New Mexico permanently in 1949. Starting in 1946 and continuing into the 1950’s, she started painting the architectural forms of her house in Abiquiu. Her paintings featured the patio walls and doors, celebrating the Adobe architecture. Later, her work in the 1960’s focused on clouds. Inspired by her views from the windows of airplanes, she completed a series of aerial cloudscape canvases in the early 1960’s. In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the fifty-member American Academy of arts and Letters. In the fall of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, the first retrospective exhibition of her work in New York since 1946, the year Stieglitz died. This exhibit did much to revive her public career.

In 1972, she stopped painting in oil due to failing eyesight but switched to continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984. In 1973, a young potter, Juan Hamilton, appeared at her ranch house looking for work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business manager until her death. Hamilton taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, and working with assistance, she produced clay pots and a series of works in watercolor. In 1976, she wrote a book about her art and allowed a film to be made about her in 1977. On January 10, 1977, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens, by then President Gerald Ford. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1984, she moved to Santa Fe where she became increasingly frail. She died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98, leaving behind a legacy of artwork we still celebrate today.

What Photographers Can Learn from Her
In real estate terms, they say that there are three things that contribute to the value of a property, these are: location, location, and location. As is true for real estate, so too can it be said of O’Keeffe’s work; it’s much about: perspective, perspective, perspective. The notion of painting something the way it might appear as viewed under a magnifying glass brings an entire new world to the artist’s canvas. Much of photography is indeed about perspective and many photographers have milked a unique perspective to create a refreshingly new bold striking image.

Many photographers are used to hearing (and probably more than a few are guilty of repeating) the phrase, “it’s all been done before” as it applies to photography, or even artwork in general. Probably more than a few are also guilty of resorting to the same perspective over and over again. There is a familiar old saying about perspective: “Look up! Look Down! Look all around you!” That’s very good advice for somebody looking to do something different with their photographic work. Indeed, a unique or personal perspective can make even an ordinary subject matter come to life and can show us a completely new, personal viewpoint of a tired old otherwise photographed to death subject. Many of the icon images we hold dear offer us a unique perspective from the photographer, as a unique view can really make an otherwise boring image really sing.

Look no further than the floral portraits from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to see what a fresh perspective can bring to an often (or even over) photographed subject. By carefully arranging flowers and treating them visually as human-like subjects he created almost minimal yet vivid portraits of flowers. Just like O’Keeffe’s flowers, Mapplethorpe’s flower images have often been described as having a sexual undertone-one can approach them by viewing the male and female aspects of the plant, in that Mapplethorpe’s blossoms contain aspects of each gender. It’s not hard to look at a Mapplethorpe flower portrait and see the striking male aspects of the flower, with the phallic stamen rising or the soft feminine curves of the blossom’s edge, but the perspective aspect of the work goes beyond sex-it’s a unique perspective on a common subject. Many, perhaps all photographers photograph flowers, what makes Mapplethorpe’s flowers striking is the unique perspective combined with the brilliant lighting and stark composition. He didn’t just shoot flowers, he shot Mapplethorpe flowers and they were unmistakably his.

I once attended a lecture by a local photography professor. As part of the talk, he made the comment that he could always tell, “how tall [his] first year students were by simply adding about six inches to the perspective of their photographs.” So many of his students shot the same images over and over again, each holding the camera up to their eye, each getting a “standing eye” perspective on the same scene, that it was easy for him to just add six inches to the height of the image to calculate how tall the photographer was. If you’re tired of shooting the same old subjects, try a different perspective to put a fresh new face on your work. Show us a bird’s eye view, show us an ant’s eye view, get on the ground, sit down, stand on a chair, or just move around. A great way to go about doing this is to bring a child along with you when you photograph-children often see things at their height and it’s a whole new world, looking at things through their eyes. Macro lenses can also do this for us-as O’Keeffe discovered, it’s a whole new world when you magnify items and play with scale and perspective to bring us new sights and fresh takes on familiar subjects. Large things can look small or unrecognizable, while small things can explode before our eyes.

O’Keeffe’s work combined both a strong sense of place-the American southwest, coupled with a very unique perspective in a blend of strong painting technique. I’m sure not everybody likes O’Keeffe’s style of painting, no, but there’s no denying that she painted the American southwest in the way that she saw it. Such an idiomatic view helped define who she was as an artist-it’s almost impossible to separate her work from her vantage point. Having a sense of place in photographic work is also a key takeaway from O’Keeffe. She showed us enough of the surround to ground the work-we know what it is we’re looking at-yet let just enough for the viewer to bring a personal interpretation. A sense of place in a composition allows a single frame, a single piece, to both set the stage and turn into the main act, because it provides enough backdrop to inform yet does not detract.

With her unique perspective and strong connection to the southwest, Georgia O’Keeffe has been a respected icon of the art world for generations. Today, the southwestern master with a fondness for painting “the faraway” earns her spot in the ranks of Painters Every Photographer Should Know. You can read more about Georgia O’Keeffe on her Wikipedia entry and look for more painters (and posts) in the series to come.

This is next in a series called “Painters Every Photographer Should Know.” The painting shown here is Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills” (1935). Please note that the paintings and photographs in this series are not copyright the author of this website, may be subject to international copyright law, and are provided her for educational purposes only.

1 Comment

  1. Great Grandma Lin
    January 21, 2012 / 3:56 pm

    interesting though lengthy article. I lived in Madison Wisconsin and that's where I first heard about Georgia O'Keefe. Have visited her ghost ranch in NM and love her paintings. There are many in Santa fe in a museum. Fun info.

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