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Magnified, voluptuous flowers. Dried bones and shells. Mountains, deserts and clouds. Adobe houses and mission churches. These subjects unmistakably call to mind the subjects of 20th-century American painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Like the work of Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, the art of Georgia O'Keeffe is a prominent part of the iconography of America art.

Born at the end of the 19th century in Sun Prairie, Wis., the second oldest of seven children, Georgia O'Keeffe knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. She once said, "My first memory is of the brightness of light ... light all around. I was sitting among pillows on a quilt on the ground ... very large white pillows...."

She revealed her gifts early on, and throughout grammar and high school received accolades for her artistic abilities. After graduation, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago for one year and the Art Students League in New York City for another, where she studied with William Merritt Chase. Of her schooling, she once said, "Schools and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I want to when I painted."

Becoming increasingly frustrated by the traditional methods of the curriculum and feeling less and less inspired, she left school, moved to Chicago, and took work as a commercial artist. While in Chicago, she didn't paint at all. From Chicago, O'Keeffe moved to Texas, where she began what would become a brief career as a schoolteacher.

In the summer of 1912, she attended a summer art class at the University of Virginia. While there she was reenergized and inspired to create works that eschew the formal teachings of her earlier classes, in favor of compositions that express inner emotions through the interplays of lights and darks, simplified forms and subtle gradations of color. From here, she returned to Texas to continue her teaching career, and to begin a series of charcoal drawings that would change the direction of her life in profound ways.

O'Keeffe sent some of these drawings to a friend living in New York City, who brought them to 291 Gallery, owned and operated by the pioneer photographer and champion of modern artists, Alfred Steiglitz. Upon seeing the drawings, Steiglitz remarked that they were the "purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while." Steiglitz hung the charcoals without O'Keeffe's knowledge or consent, and thus the woman who would become the most critically acclaimed and popular female artist in American history had her first New York exhibition.

A correspondence quickly began between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, and soon after, O'Keeffe relocated to New York City and began a love affair with him. They were married in 1924. In was around this time that she began to paint flowers in extreme close-up--images that would make her an overnight success and the focus of much controversy over the seemingly sexual symbolism of these exquisitely beautiful and original works of art.

Rebutting the public's assumptions, she said, "You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower--and I don't." She also remarked, "Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know the flower is painted large to convey my experience with the flower--and what is my experience if it is not the color?"

In 1929, O'Keeffe spent the summer months with a friend in Taos, N.M. The stark landscape, saturated colors and solitude of the place deeply affected O'Keeffe, who continued to spend each summer there until Steiglitz's death in 1946. She moved to New Mexico shortly thereafter and continued to live and work there until her death in 1986.

The years she spent in the Southwest were prolific ones for her. Some of her most powerful images of sun-bleached animal bones, desert landscapes, red hills and views of clouds and the cobalt blue skies are depictions of her New Mexico surroundings. Commenting on the colors of the desert landscape, she once said, "Sun-bleached bones were most wonderful against the blue--that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man's destruction is finished."

In 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a retrospective of O'Keeffe's work, and in 1985 she received the Medal of the Arts Award from President Ronald Reagan. By "saying things with colors" and devoting her life to the singular vision of reducing and abstracting objects to their basic essence, O'Keeffe helped people see the world from new perspectives. To learn more about Georgia O'Keeffe, visit the following Web sites:





A Storm (1922), by Georgia O'Keeffe, continues this year's look at weather in art. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Web site (, "A Storm is a sumptuous pastel that captures the awesome sight of a raging electrical storm over water. O'Keeffe created a jolting contrast between the deep blue pastel of the water and sky, smudged and velvety, and the sharp angular bolt of the red lightning outlined in yellow. This dramatic scene, which she most likely witnessed at Lake George, includes the surprising appearance of a full moon reflected in the lake at lower left."

The gray-green oval cloud hangs in the upper center of the composition, and is symmetrically balanced by the white cloud formations and sections of sky that border the upper and lower left and fight sides of the frame. This image is an excellent example of how O'Keeffe simplified forms by moving them toward abstraction, yet retained a level of realism that allows the viewer to "read" the subject matter.

This image was made in the years just before O'Keeffe began painting her signature flower paintings, and has more in common with her early charcoal drawings and watercolor landscapes made while still living and teaching in Texas and after her move to New York City. Simplified shapes, the contrast of positive and negative space, and saturated color juxtaposed against the absence of color creates a sense of drama and visual impact that would become a hallmark characteristic of O'Keeffe's oeuvre.
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Title Annotation:American painter Georgia O'Keeffe
Author:Carroll, Colleen
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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