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Georgia O'Keeffe

1887-1986

 

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887, the second child and first daughter in a family that would eventually include two sons and five daughters.  Her parents were dairy farmers, but Georgia knew she was going to be an artist from early on.  She and her sister were both taught to draw by a grammar school teacher who had been boarding at their home, an taught to paint by Sarah Mann, a local watercolor artist.   Georgia's parents moved from Wisconsin to Virginia in 1902, hoping to get some relief from the long, cold winters which had claimed the lives of three of her father's brothers.  By the time she was a teenager, Georgia had several years of artistic training to her credit, and received much encouragement from Elizabeth Willis, her art teacher at the Chatham Episcopal Institute. Georgia graduated in 1905, and  continued her art studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she received top honors for her first year, but could not return for the second year, due to a serious bout with typhoid fever.  It wasn't until September 1907, that she was able to resume her studies, this time choosing New York's Art Student League, where she earned a scholarship for still life in the class of  William Merritt Chase.  During her time at the Art Student League, Georgia posed for classmate Eugene Speicher, who told her she might as well pose for him, as she would no doubt amount to nothing more than a teaching job at a girl's school. Despite the insulting remark, Georgia did pose for the portrait, and for many others by fellow students afterwards.  In the summer of 1908, on her  scholarship, she attended the Art Student League’s Outdoor School at Lake George, New York.

Georgia didn't return to the Art Student League in the fall.  She moved in with her aunt and uncle in Chicago, finding work as a commercial artist.  In 1912, Georgia was struck with Measles, and returns to Virginia to be with her family.  She later took a teaching job, replacing  Elizabeth Willis at the Chatham Episcopal Institute. The following summer, she resumed her studies, this time taking drawing classes at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.  That same year, Georgia heard of an available teaching position as drawing supervisor, in Amarillo, Texas, so she applied and was hired for the fall semester.  She stayed in Texas until 1914, making frequent trips to Charlottesville to spend time with her family, and to continue teaching summer classes at the University of Virginia.  She later enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she stayed until she was offered a teaching position at Columbia College in South Carolina.  After years of teaching and having little time to herself, Georgia decided it was time to start painting again, this time armed with enough knowledge and self-confidence to eschew conventions and create according to her personal vision; the result is a series of abstract charcoal drawings which she says are based on images she has in her head.  She sends the drawings to a friend, Anita Pollitzer, who in turn takes them to Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery in Chicago.  Stieglitz is very impressed, and he decided to show the drawings without first consulting Georgia, which somewhat angered her, so she traveled to New York to have him take down the artwork, but following a brief confrontation, she agreed to let Stieglitz show her work, and thus began a relationship that was to result in her marrying the art curator and photographer.

Alfred Stieglitz was an important figure in the art world, He had studied engineering and photography in Berlin before returning to the U.S. to open the 291 gallery in 1902.  He is credited has having introduced America to the works of Rodin, Matisse, and Picasso.  For years, he fought to gain the acceptance of photography as an art form, publishing  "Camera Works" magazine.  It wasn't until 1917 that Stieglitz put on a solo showing of  Georgia O'Keeffe's watercolors at his 291 gallery, shortly afterwards, 291 closed, but Stieglitz was nonetheless satisfied.  In April, on her way back to Texas from a vacation in Colorado, she stopped by Santa Fe and found great inspiration in New Mexico’s vast skies and alien landscapes.   A few months later, Georgia O'Keeffe became ill with the flu, and had to take a leave of absence from her teaching job, only to resign a short time later.  It was at that time that Stieglitz managed to convince Georgia to move to New York and move into his niece's unused apartment.  Stieglitz had romantic feelings towards Georgia, and now that she was near him, he decided to pursue them.  He left his wife of many years and moved into his studio.   Stieglitz was 54 years old when Georgia arrived in New York she was 21.  Knowing that she enjoyed working in the great outdoors, Stieglitz took Georgia to a cottage out in the Adirondack Mountains, where she created many paintings, Stieglitz also spent much photographing Georgia, and he ended up showing some of her portraits, including several nudes at a retrospective exhibition at The Anderson Galleries in 1921.

Stieglitz loved Georgia O'Keeffe, and had admiration for her talent. He more or less became her agent, selling her works to collectors at high prices, earning her the respect she deserved as a gifted artist.  Everybody wanted an O'Keeffe...  In 1923, Stieglitz held a major exhibit of Georgia O'Keeffe's work at the Anderson Galleries, over 100 paintings in various mediums were shown, in what was to be the first of many annual showings of her work.  When Stieglitz's wife divorced him in 1924, he asked Georgia to marry him, but it took some effort to finally convince her to do so, since she did not really believe that doing so would bring the two any closer than they already were;  1924 was also the year she made her first painting of a single large flower, which would eventually become her most famous subject.  A year later the couple moved to the Shelton Hotel in New York, where they would remain for 12 years. It was around that time Georgia began painting cityscapes,  no doubt inspired by the spectacular view they had from their 30th floor apartment.  Three years later, Georgia had had enough of the city as a subject, and felt the need to travel again.  She took a trip to New Mexico, the first of many for years to come, where she would paint, inspired by the the mountains and deserts of the region and mysterious aura of the place.   She referred to landscape as "the faraway", and would travel its dusty roads in a Model A Ford, with the back seat removed so she could stop and set up her canvas to paint.

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