Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was born in a farmhouse on a large dairy farm (shown below) outside of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887. The second of seven children, O’Keeffe wanted to be an artist from an early age. By the age of 16, O'Keeffe had 5 years of private art lessons at various schools in Wisconsin and Virginia.
In 1905 she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and a year later went to study at the Art Students League of New York. She developed her artistic ability through still life paintings (arrangements of inanimate, everyday objects); most successfully the oil on canvas Dead Rabbit With Copper Pot (1908). Though it won her a scholarship, it brought O'Keeffe little personal satisfaction. For a short time, O'Keeffe abandoned painting.
During the summer of 1915, O’Keeffe took classes at the Teachers College of Columbia University in South Carolina, and there began her re-entry into the world of painting. She became the head of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College in 1916. O'Keeffe's time in Texas sparked her lasting fascination with the western landscape. At least 50 watercolors were painted during the time spent in Canyon, Texas including Canyon with Crows (1917).
O’Keeffe made a handful of charcoal drawings that she sent to a friend in New York. Her friend showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and gallery owner. He felt that the drawings showed great energy. Without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, she had her first exhibition (art show) in 1916 at Steiglitz’s “291 Gallery.”
In the summer of 1918, O'Keeffe gave up her teaching position and moved to New York City. Stieglitz arranged shows for O’Keeffe and sold her paintings for her. Below is a photo of O’Keeffe taken by Stieglitz in 1918. By this time she was known only as "O'Keeffe" to the art world. She rarely signed a painting, but instead would sometimes print an "OK" on the back of the canvas. The sixty-year-old Alfred Stieglitz and the thirty-seven-year-old Georgia O'Keeffe were married on December 11, 1924.
The whole decade of the 1920s saw the growth and success of O'Keeffe's artistic talent.During the long winter months in New York she began to paint her very large flowers, which are some of her most popular works today. Two such works are Canna Red and Orange (1922) and Two Calla Lilies on Pink (1928).
These paintings possessed a certain style that O'Keeffe broke artistic ground with: magnification. O'Keeffe would enlarge the painting subjects to increase their importance and impact. Her flower paintings were first exhibited in 1925. Another example, entitled Red Poppy (1927), is shown below. O’Keeffe once said, "Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.“
In 1925, she and Stieglitz moved to the Shelton Hotel in New York, taking an apartment on the 30th floor of the new building. They would live here for 12 years. With a spectacular view, O’Keeffe began to paint the city as in this painting entitled East River from the Shelton #12 (1926). O’Keeffe stated, "One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt."
In 1926, O'Keeffe began to paint images of urban landscapes and skyscrapers includingRadiator Building-Night (1927). In these paintings, O'Keeffe captured the height and distance of the structures; however, other typical urban feature such as automobiles, streets, and people were not portrayed. In fact, O'Keeffe never in her entire career painted people or any living creatures.
By 1928, O'Keeffe began to feel the need to travel and find other sources for painting. Friends returning from the West with stories stimulated O'Keeffe's desire to see and explore new places. In 1929, O'Keeffe spent a summer in Taos, New Mexico, where she was fascinated by the dry landscape and broad desert skies. One of her paintings from this period is entitled Black Cross, New Mexico (1929).
While in Taos she visited the historical mission church at Ranchos de Taos and painted Ranchos Church New Mexico (1930). Although she painted the church as many artists had done before, her painting of only a portion of the mission wall silhouetted against the dark blue sky would portray it as no artist had before. "I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could."
The trip would forever change her life. In love with the open skies and sun-drenched landscape, she began returning to New Mexico every summer to paint. This painting is entitled Black Mesa Landscape (1930). O'Keeffe found a vibrant and supportive community among the artists that had been flocking to Taos and Santa Fe since the 1890s.
In the 1930s, O'Keeffe began painting another subject which would improve her reputation as an artist. These were animal bones, in particular cow skulls. Just as with the flowers, O'Keeffe enlarged and simplified the bones on the barren desert. In some cases she painted the bones even more curiously by decorating them with flowers painted in the same manner as her previous works. Probably, the most peculiar from this period is Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931).
In her yearly visits to New Mexico, O’Keeffe would travel the back roads in her Model A Ford car. She had removed the back seat and would unbolt the front seat, turning it around so that she could prop her canvas against the back wall of the car and paint while seated in it. This photo, taken by famous artist Ansel Adams in 1937, shows her doing just that.
This painting, entitled Yellow Cactus (1940), combines her fascination with close-ups of flowers with her love of the southwest.
On July 13, 1946, Alfred Stieglitz died at the age of eighty-two. He and O'Keeffe had been married twenty-two years. After Stieglitz died in 1949, O'Keeffe permanently relocated to New Mexico. There she continued to produce her impressively simple images of the southwestern land that she loved.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, O’Keeffe’s fame continued to grow. During the 1950s she painted a series based on a rectangular wooden door on an adobe wall. While majestic, these paintings were very formal and less inspiring. One of these paintings entitled Patio Door With Green Leaf (1956) is shown below.
In 1959, after a world tour by airplane, O’Keeffe painted the Sky Above Clouds series based on an aerial view. In her painting entitled Sky Above Clouds IV (1965), the clouds are painted at regular intervals in a calm sky, representing peace above earth. In 1961, at the age of 74, she went on the first of three raft trips down the Colorado River. These trips inspired a series of river-themed paintings.
She traveled around the world and had a number of major retrospective shows (an exhibition of a representative selection of an artist's life work). O’Keeffe's paintings were exhibited at several museums through the 1960s and 1970s. One of her works from this time is entitled Canyon Country (1965), which is owned by the Phoenix Art Museum.
She received several honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1977 and the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1985. A little less than a year later on March 6, 1986, Georgia O'Keeffe died in Santa Fe at the age of ninety-eight.