Georgia O’Keeffe: Modernism

Born: November 15, 1887 in Wisconsin, died: March 6, 1986 in New Mexico440px-O'Keeffe-(hands)

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe was truly a revolutionary artistic force, as she “remained independent from shifting art trends” to create a modern style unique to herself. She’s well-known for her zoomed in depictions of flowers, but was also drawn to landscapes and the bones and skulls that littered the desert environment of New Mexico. No matter her subject, her dynamic compositions and precise work has served to cement her as one of the first, and most influential, American Modern artists.

Born into a large family in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe became enamored with art as a child, later attending the Art Institute of Chicago at age 18. She was trained at several other schools before becoming an art teacher, traveling around the United States to teach art to pupils in primary and secondary schools and crafting her own pieces along the way. She sent photographs of her work to a friend in New York, who passed the images along to a prominent gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz saw the potential in her work and insisted she move to New York. The two bonded quickly after she arrived, and he began showing and promoting many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Her pieces caught the eyes of New Yorkers and beyond, notably because they were so original for the time. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924, marking the beginning of a complicated, but very prominent, relationship.


Red Canna, 1924

This is one of O’Keeffe’s earlier paintings from her time in New York. It depicts a close-up, intimate view of a calla lily. She captures its hue beautifully, along with doing would become her signature– showing the “abstract forms in nature.”

Throughout her marriage, O’Keeffe would frequently travel alone to make art in one of her favorite places– New Mexico. After the death of her husband, she moved to the western state permanently, enamored by its unusual and beautiful scenery. She frequently painted “rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up”, continuing the trend of making organic objects seem almost unnatural by intensifying certain aspects.


Black Place, Grey and Pink, 1949

This is one of many paintings O’Keeffe made centered on what she called “The Black Place,” a hilly, isolated area in New Mexico she said looked like “a mile of elephants.”  I think this is a great example of her unusual ability to really blow up a scene from everyday life, and turn it into something strange and unrecognizable. I’m assuming she took some liberties with the pink in the mountains, but the effect is stunning .

Though she was stationed in New Mexico for the rest of her life, O’Keeffe enjoyed traveling to other countries in her old age. She created her final two series based on the aerial images she saw while flying in a plane. She made large, over 20 foot long paintings, which astonished the public due to the fact she was almost 80 years old. After that, the artist was unfortunately afflicted by health problems, involving failing vision, that left her unable to work for the last 15 or so years of her life.


Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965

Despite her weakening health, O’Keeffe published an autobiography in 1976, which became a best-seller. She received both the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford and the Medal of Arts from Ronald Reagan. Clearly, the artist had captured the attention and interest of the American public in her pieces, evident in the fact that even today her pieces are so recognizable. Her work was simple with its clean lines, and relatively two-dimensional depictions. But the way she captured such imposing images– looming mountains, a sea of clouds– so intimately and abstractly shows her real genius.


Ram’s Head, White Hollycock-Hills, 1935

This is my absolute favorite Georgia O’Keeffe piece, and I’m sure it’s one many of you recognize. Everything about it is so beautiful and elegant, from the curvatures in the skull to the rolling hills. I love the contrast between her rich, flowing colors and the precision of her lines. The subject is also fascinating, and it really demonstrates her merging her two interests of landscapes and desert bones.



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