Printer Friendly

Georgia O'Keeffe and Emily Carr: health, nature and the creative process.

Widely regarded as their nation's preeminent women painters of the 20th century are the American Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Canadian Emily Carr (1871-1945). Their public identities are as well known as the iconic images they made, and their biographers have tracked the lifelong efforts of each to define an artistic style while living out her own invented, unique, and sometimes conflicted personal mythology. What they also shared, and what is worth closer scrutiny within their careers, is periodic depressive illness.

Today depression is understood by most experts as a debilitating disorder that afflicts, in the estimation of the World Health Organization, as many as 25 percent of persons worldwide. But that modern view of the illness has evolved from multiple, evolving views. Before its redefinition as a disease, depression--especially among creative individuals--was long romanticized and even totemized: a persistent myth credited "heroic melancholy" as a source of artistry, soulfulness, and rebellion. Chalked up to depression were the kind of enhanced emotional or cognitive powers believed to fire any number of major artistic expressions: Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway spring readily to mind.

Challenging that popular myth of depression-fueled creativity are modern scientific studies that debunk such romantic notions, insisting instead that depression's gifts are far more malevolent: sadness, chronic exhaustion, and corrosive anxiety. In his recent book Against Depression, the eminent clinical psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer characterizes the disorder as "fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal." (1) In this view, depression--far from augmenting creativity--can damage the brain's structure and function, resulting in lost productivity, accidents, physical illness, even suicide.

At the outset of the 20th century, when Carr and O'Keeffe were beginning their careers, older notions about the relationship between mind and body still held sway. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic colleague Sandor Ferenczi, for example, regarded each organ as having a private life, a sort of personality or body-based awareness of its own role in the larger organism. (2) Emily Carr often imagined her physical self in a similar fashion, envisioning a kind of "cognitive map" of her body, upon which she could pinpoint its function or dysfunction. She frequently remarked in her journal of her mind's image of bodily ills: "My spirit is still black and smarting. ... it wanted to hide away from the fuss and weariness. Liver, I suspect." (3) Such views have been rendered quaint by modern science's mighty struggle to dispel mystery from the body. No longer is the liver regarded as the seat of black moods or the spleen the site of anger. Organs have lost their old metaphorical or symbolic "personalities." Instead, they have been given new, largely mechanical roles: the heart has become a muscular pump, the brain is likened to a living computer.

But a century ago many people, including creative individuals such as Carr and O'Keeffe, listened to their bodies in ways we mostly disparage these days. While neither allowed a metaphorical or metaphysical view of disease to replace the medical one (they both relied on medical treatment for their physical ills), they also gave a measure of credence to the body's poetic truth as an important component of their physical and artistic identities. O'Keeffe and Carr (like many other visual artists) brought imagination to the human body and have related it to the forms and processes of nature. They intuited that the self is articulated in countless expressive forms: physiognomy, movement, gesture, dress and--not least--in illness. And they refused to banish from their own work the expressive possibilities of disease. In their work and in their words lies evidence that both painters incorporated such imaginative body images, deeply entwined with illness, into the ongoing processes of identity formation and creativity. Such evidence forms a small but significant part of the larger argument that paintings are often "about" the artist's life. By following the lead of these two artists, returning some measure of imagination to things they refused to relegate to the merely physical realm, it is possible to glimpse their own poetic or artistic reading of the body as expressed in illness.

To begin in a fundamental, demonstrable way, O'Keeffe's (Fig. 1) and Carr's (Fig. 2)health and body images directly affected their artistic production. O'Keeffe's energies and emotions were intimately intertwined. Patterns of depression accompanied by physical illness in her life developed early and dogged her periodically through many decades. She grew aware of the linkage and eventually came to understand its power and its place in her life. In the beginning, though, illness was a terrifying foe. When she contracted typhoid, for example, at the age of 18, the disease left her physically depleted, without hair and in low spirits. She missed a year of art school, and only gradually recovered her emotional equilibrium.


O'Keeffe's was a family beset with many illness and losses, which they often strove to defeat by sheer force of will. From childhood she had shared her family's reluctance to give in to despair; she learned early to steel herself against pain. When sorrow threatened to overwhelm her during her mother's last illness in 1916, O'Keeffe summoned her inner resolve. In February 1916 she wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer, "Self-control is a wonderful thing--I think we must even keep ourselves from feeling too much--often--if we are going to keep sane ..." (4) But three months later, when her mother finally lost a long battle with tuberculosis, Georgia had temporarily exhausted her supply of self-control, giving in to grief. For six weeks she languished in depression, exhausted and unable to work. She roused herself in time to teach summer school at the University of Virginia, and the experience of work began to redirect O'Keeffe's energies in positive channels. While grieving at the death of one's mother is an understandable, even necessary emotional nadir, O'Keeffe's later bouts of depression were often linked to intense work, followed by predictable exhaustion and illness.

As a young woman O'Keeffe first learned something about personal freedom and solitude, lessons she would later occasionally forget at her peril. Taking teaching jobs in Texas and South Carolina between 1912 and 1918, she found places remote from stress and the complexities of city life: "I was alone and singularly free," she recalled, "working into my own, unknown--no one to satisfy but myself." (5) O'Keeffe especially loved the plains of West Texas during her two periods of residence there, although she sometimes felt herself a misfit in the conservative Panhandle towns. Periodically at odds with school administrators over curriculum and teacher decorum (O'Keeffe's refusal to attend church and her free associations with men were thought to be somewhat unconventional behavior), tensions increased after the United States entered World War I in 1917. She was supportive of the American position, but grew increasingly isolated from the college community at Canyon by her opposition to excessive militarism. Depressed and disillusioned, she stopped painting that fall. Worst of all, she seemed not to care. To the photographer Paul Strand she wrote,
   I guess can't work because everything seems so mixed
   up--so inconsistent--...I cannot really be any one thing
   enough to want to say anything about it--Everything
   seems to be whirling or unbalanced--
   I'm suspended in the air--can't get my
   feet on the ground--I hate all the folks I
   see every day--hate the things I see them
   doing--the things I see them thinking. (6)

That she could not "really be any one thing enough to want to say anything about it" points to a crisis within her deepest artistic identity. O'Keeffe always needed a clear vision of herself to paint at her best; now she seemed blind to that image and mute in her expressive voice. She went on to tell Strand, "It's all like a bad dream."

Enervated and depressed, O'Keeffe fell victim to the dangerous influenza epidemic sweeping the country early in 1918. She received a medical leave from the college and retreated to Waring, near San Antonio, to convalesce with her friend Leah Harris, herself recovering from tuberculosis.

It took a change of both scene and companions for O'Keeffe to recover herself in 1918. In future years, it would sometimes take more. In the 1920s, when her exhibitions began to attract critical notice, the anticipation of them often plunged her into depression accompanied by significant physical symptoms. That she became physically ill at the approach of her exhibitions has been well documented. It began early, when critics trumpeted sexuality in the photographic portraits Alfred Stieglitz made of her as well as in her flower paintings. Scholar Barbara Lynes has seen a distinct pattern: "[O'Keeffe] hated exhibiting her work, the publicity exhibitions generated, and in general, being in the public eye." (7)

O'Keeffe's cognitive map of her body was sometimes vague. Her work-related symptoms took many forms: a week into her 1923 show she took to her bed "with the grippe." A year later, still reeling from the critical reaction to the 1923 show, she sequestered herself in anticipation of the next one: "I have had a cold" she wrote to her friend Sherwood Anderson, "and have been shut up in my room since I knew the event was to take place--and nothing goes on in my head. ..." (8)

It is in O'Keeffe's letters, and in some of her husband Alfred Stieglitz's, that one glimpses most clearly the ways the painter's emotional state affected her physical well-being and creativity. Summers at Lake George, ostensibly spent in quiet retreat from the city, sometimes made things worse for O'Keeffe. At the lake, where streams of visitors and lack of privacy oppressed her, the tension at times grew unbearable. During the summer of 1924 she suffered a prolonged malaise, and in 1925 a severe allergic reaction from which it took her nine weeks to recover amid the turmoil of the Stieglitz clan. The summer of 1926 found her anxiety-ridden; from Lake George that year her husband confided to a friend "Georgia worries me much ... psychic conditions." (9) A few days later he added, "She has lost 15 pounds and was terribly nervous." (10) In a desperate flight from the lake, O'Keeffe headed for York Beach, Maine, where she remained for a month, despite Stieglitz's visit and letters pleading for her return to Lake George.

At times O'Keeffe seemed to understand the way life's tensions undermined her art. To a sick friend, she disclosed her growing realization that mind and body functioned together in health and in disease. And she seemed to advocate something of a therapeutic role for art itself. "I hope you are caring for yourself--giving yourself a chance," she wrote to her friend Blanche Matthias, then
   Something in you must quiet down so that you can get
   well--I wish I could help you I am learning something
   myself--I dont know exactly what it is--but if I did--if I
   could put it clearly into form it would cure you. That is
   worthy of a laugh--but I am sure it is true. (11)

O'Keeffe was not a follower of fashionable therapies, but she was certainly aware, living in New York, of the widespread preoccupation with mind-cure in modernist circles from the 1910s onward. Seen in activities ranging from Christian Science to Native American peyote rites to Theosophy and psychoanalysis, the notion of art as therapeutic was linked on the one hand to modernist openness to the new, on the other to modernist absorption with oneself, one's moods, perceptions and intuitions.

Following the same yearly routine--winters in New York City, summers at Lake George--proved anything but curative for O'Keeffe's tensions. As the twenties advanced, she suffered an attack of painful rheumatism in 1927, followed by the discovery of a breast lump that sabotaged her summer's work. A second surgery a few months later debilitated her even further. By the spring of 1928 O'Keeffe was overtired and on edge. She escaped to Maine for two weeks during April, then went with Stieglitz to Lake George in May. But after only two weeks there she grew increasingly depressed and fled again to Maine. She couldn't stay on in Maine indefinitely, but she balked at the prospect of the long summer stretching out before her at Lake George. Instead, she made plans for a trip to visit her family back in Wisconsin. Stieglitz, whose tendencies towards hypochondria were complicated by real ailments, invoked ill health to keep from going along. At once self-absorbed and sensitive to her emotional strain, he wrote "I sometimes wish I had a few ailments instead of the many so that I might be able to take a few months off and accompany O'Keeffe to 'her' America. I know that is what she craves for." (12)

O'Keeffe's America, as was becoming all too clear, was emerging as much a state of mind as a physical place. It was definitely not to be found at Lake George. Neither was it present in the city. After a long, difficult winter, she wrote to Sherwood Anderson from Lake George, "Living is so difficult--almost too difficult." She added, by way of explanation, "Do not think from what I write that I am blue--I am having my few great days of the year when there is no one around and I can really breathe--I don't know why people disturb me so much--" And, confessing in the same letter to the power her environment exerted, "I wanted to write you in the city often but couldn't--It wasnt nice--it was cracked and torn and bent and a little moldy." (13)


As the artist of her own life, O'Keeffe cloaked her city-linked depression in the metaphor of a painting, a canvas badly in need of refurbishing. Many of her canvases that year were dark in tonality: corn plants, abstractions, a series of three dull-toned works she called Portrait of a Day.

O'Keeffe's artistic production during the late 1920s was meager and, in her mind, less than successful. In 1927 she wrote to Waldo Frank, "I do not seem to be crystallizing anything this winter--much is happening--but it doesn't take shape. ... I have come to the end of something." (14) By 1929 her state of mind grew grimmer, and, looking back at her last show she was unhappy about it: "When I saw my exhibition ... I knew I must get back to some of my own ways or quit--it was mostly all dead for me." (15) The paintings in her February-March 1929 show were not all new. Mostly small, they included some flowers, images of the New York skyline, and a number of leaf studies, many of the latter with torn, broken, or jagged edges. The enterprise of relating paintings to emotional states is imprecise at best, but it is certainly true that O'Keeffe's feelings that year were battered and bruised as well. She was all too aware of Stieglitz's infatuation with the younger, adoring Dorothy Norman. To stay another summer with Stieglitz was a sentence to further tension and depression. O'Keeffe struggled with competing loyalties--to Stieglitz and to her own emotional survival. It took all her resolve to break away. "If I can keep my courage and leave Stieglitz I plan to go West," she wrote a friend in 1929. (16)

When O'Keeffe departed for New Mexico in 1929, her traveling companion Rebecca Strand promised to report to Stieglitz on his wife's health. Soon she could assure him of the Southwest's salubrious effect on O'Keeffe:
   Red cheeks, round face and ready for anything--with no
   bad after effects--eats everything--sleeps long and
   laughs a lot. I wish you could be here to see the visible
   proof--I am afraid I am going to be a terrible disbeliever,
   when, in the future, I hear you say she is frail--here she
   seems as tough as a hickory root, and it's not the false
   toughness of excitement and newness, but a strength
   that has come from finding what she knew she needed. (17)


In fact, O'Keeffe felt altogether invigorated by her summers in New Mexico. Following that first four-month stay in 1929, she was healthier--physically and emotionally--than she had been in years, newly rich in the experience of herself. She had found some new subjects in the distinctive architecture and landscape around Taos. En route back East she wrote to her friend Ettie Stettheimer of the exhilaration she felt: "I have had four months west and it seems to be all that I needed ... I haven't gained an ounce in weight but I feel so alive that I am apt to crack at any moment. ... I laughed a great deal--I went every place that I had time to go--and Im ready to go back East as long as I have to go sometime--If it were not for the Stieglitz call I would probably never go." (18) To Mabel Dodge Luhan, her Taos hostess, she said simply, "it seems the most perfect thing that has ever happened to me." (19)

During the following two summers in New Mexico, O'Keeffe thrived in the freedom it offered her, but the next year, 1932, she decided abruptly against going. Perhaps because of Stieglitz's growing involvement with Dorothy Norman, O'Keeffe chose to stay in the East. Another frenetic summer at the lake, overrun with houseguests, drove O'Keeffe to seek some quiet on an August painting trip with Stieglitz's niece to the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. She returned twice more to Canada that year. Out of those ventures came landscapes of somber greens, some leavened with the whiteness of old Canadian barns, solid shapes she painted in a manner both specific and abstract.

In the fall of 1932 O'Keeffe worked hard on designs for a mural commission she had accepted at the new Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was a project Stieglitz opposed vigorously, calling it a crassly commercial undertaking. O'Keeffe persisted, worrying over the contract for months. When it came time to inspect the intended wall space--canvas laid over plaster--she saw that the surface had been improperly prepared, was still wet, and the canvas was peeling off. With only six weeks until the scheduled completion date, O'Keeffe's determination wavered; she abruptly backed out of her contract, aided by Stieglitz, who phoned the project agent to say that O'Keeffe was having a nervous breakdown.

It was an excuse that would prove prophetic. O'Keeffe retreated to Lake George, but returned to the city in December in a state of severe anxiety. Debilitating physical symptoms accompanied the mental collapse: shortness of breath, chest pains, and difficulty in speaking. Stieglitz's physician-brother diagnosed it as shock, while other specialists mentioned heart or kidneys. With bed rest O'Keeffe improved temporarily, and plunged into preparing for her January show at Stieglitz's gallery, An American Place. But now the expected pre-exhibition anxieties were layered over a lingering disappointment in the failed mural project. Soon O'Keeffe showed more physical symptoms: fatigue, severe headaches, and crying spells. Then she grew unable to eat or sleep. The array of symptoms O'Keeffe displayed first suggested physical disorder, but instead proved to be classic features of disorders growing out of extreme psychological stress--conditions variously described as conversion disorder or hysterical neurosis. In that debilitated state, O'Keeffe was forced to avoid all immanent stress--in this case, preparing for her upcoming show--and Stieglitz was obliged to do it alone. O'Keeffe moved into her sister Anita's Park Avenue apartment. In mid-January Stieglitz wrote to Arthur Dove, "Georgia is very very sick & I am really worried more than I dare admit. ... [she] is in very bad shape. It is ghastly.--She may see no one. I may not see her for a week & then only for 10 minutes.--Talk about a living death." (20)

Was he speaking of O'Keeffe's living death, or his own? It pained him to have his wife away, and his discomfort certainly stemmed from genuine concern for her well-being. But he also disliked her removal from his direct oversight; he wanted to be in control of her professional life, as he had shown in his objections to the mural commission. O'Keeffe knew this and grew accustomed to his hovering nature: "Alfred once admitted," she recalled, "that he was happiest when I was ill in bed because then he knew where I was and what I was doing." (21) For the time being, in 1933, he was forced to relinquish control as O'Keeffe's emotional health worsened. On February 1 she was hospitalized in New York, diagnosed with psychoneurosis. Released in March, she recuperated in Bermuda until May, then spent most of the year's remainder resting at Lake George. From there she wrote her friend Rebecca Salsbury Strand of her continuing lassitude: "I just sit in my effortless soup and wait for myself. ... And the worst of my fatigue is a suffering in my nerves that is much worse than physical pain--I don't really get tired physically." (22)

That state of enervation sapped all her strength for painting. As she approached the end of a full year of artistic inactivity, she wrote to a friend in New Mexico that "I have not worked at all ... Nothing seems worth being put down--I seem to have nothing to say." (23) She spoke of feeling like a dead weight, and it was clear that despair had displaced any creative will. It was not until early 1934 that she resumed painting. As she felt her energies and equilibrium returning, O'Keeffe looked back with wonder at the experience she'd been through. In a letter to the writer Jean Toomer, who had spent time with her at Lake George, she wrote, "I seem to have come to life in such a quiet surprising fashion--as tho I am not sick any more--Everything in me begins to move and I feel like a really positive thing again." (24)

After her long hiatus, reconnecting with the city and the art world proved difficult. O'Keeffe struggled to redefine her space and to attend to what she needed for her work and well-being. "If the past year or two or three has taught me anything," she wrote Toomer, "it is that my plot of earth must be tended with absurd care--By myself first--and if second by someone else it must be with absolute trust--their thinking carefully and knowing what they do--It seems it would be very difficult for me to live if it were wrecked again just now--" (25) O'Keeffe had moved through a period of darkness and silence, in which she had learned how to listen closely to self, merely to be instead of to do. She had initiated an honest examination of her life, listening to the messages of her body, and allowing her imagination (the metaphorical tending of her "plot of earth") to move into deeper insights.

The comment about caring for herself reveals O'Keeffe's new resolve not to give over her health and stability to anyone's keeping--implicitly, not even to Stieglitz. On some level, she realized that he had exercised too much control over her private and artistic life, to a point of undermining her own confidence and ability to make decisions. For the relationship to survive in any form, and for O'Keeffe to maintain her emotional health, she had to separate herself from him, from a relationship that had become too tightly packed. She left him again in March 1934, for another respite in Bermuda, testing her strength: "It was very difficult to leave him but I knew I could not stay--" she confided to Toomer. As her ship steamed into the Atlantic, she was still adrift emotionally: "My old sense of reality seems displaced and I cannot quite anchor a new one." (26)

Displaced and drifting, O'Keeffe had nonetheless learned something else important from her illness. What was emerging with growing clarity was her need to offset the demands of society with large doses of solitude. To withstand the pressures people placed on her, she seemed to need to separate herself into two parts--a city self, interacting with people, and a country or private self. Returning to peaceful wintertime Lake George after twelve days in the city, she wrote of the severing of her twin selves:
   I feel like someone else here--just in the two or three
   hours I am here--It seems that I can barely remember the
   day I went--as tho I was smashed to bits so many times
   in the 12 days that I dont remember by whom or what or
   when or where--only what sits here and writes does not
   seem to have much connection with that terrible time I
   had in town--Already I feel very quiet and pleasant--(27)

By the early 1930s illness had become, one concludes, almost a part of O'Keeffe's mystique, perhaps internalized by the artist herself. It had started as early as 1922, when her health difficulties were publicly discussed. That year a journalist wrote on O'Keeffe's art as it stemmed from the complexities of her personality, citing "genuineness and simplicity," while noting that she was "sensitive," "intellectual and introspective," displaying an "aloofness from life." The writer wondered whether illness might be a factor in the "secret of that personality," speculating, "Is there after all, a connection between genius and ill health? Miss O'Keeffe has known a great deal of illness in her life: she has, we imagine, been thrown back upon her own resources to a large extent." (28) The journalist's suggestion that illness deepens experience and textures life is a clear example of the romanticizing of depression, the old myth that the affliction was somehow generative of creativity.

Although O'Keeffe would never again experience a breakdown of similar magnitude, there would be other bouts of illness to endure. In February 1935 Stieglitz reported to Dove that O'Keeffe would go to Washington for a respite: "New York is too much for her." (29) Two months later she underwent surgery to remove her appendix and an ovarian cyst, procedures requiring a two-month recuperation period. When well enough, she escaped to New Mexico, where her painting took on new strength and direction. Leaving behind the difficult months of fragmentation and disintegration, O'Keeffe moved visibly to recovery.

The seventeen new paintings from that New Mexico period, evoked knowing comments from critics when they were shown in New York in 1936. Lewis Mumford, who had followed her work through its dark passage, wrote of its re-emergence:
   Certain elements in O'Keeffe's biography were plainly
   visible in the paintings of the previous few years;
   physical illness cannot be concealed. There was more
   than conventional symbolism in the dark crosses that
   stood out against the clear desert sky, and there was a
   bitter note in the pink rose stuck in the horse's skull. The
   painting in these pictures was still fine, and there was
   even technical progress in her modelling of the
   landscape, but the work lacked the sense of sharp
   discovery that the earlier paintings had. One felt that the
   next word might diminish into that silence which is the
   artist's death. (30)

Mumford singled out O'Keeffe's Ram's Head--White Hollyhock--Little Hills, New Mexico (1935; Fig. 3) for special praise. This work he placed, along with other landscapes from that recovery year, within the ranks of O'Keeffe's finest landscape efforts, all demonstrating "health and mastery." "This new work," he declared, "glows with poetry and truth; and neither strain or weariness nor despair is visible." (31)

But the old demons were not completely vanquished in 1935; O'Keeffe would be dogged periodically by emotional illnesses arising from predictable situations, usually conflict and loss of personal control over her art. In 1939 she took a three-month trip to Hawaii at the invitation of the Dole Pineapple Company. Though entranced by the beauty of the islands, the strain of working to a company's specifications--they wanted her to paint pineapples--created tensions and discord. O'Keeffe returned exhausted, experiencing headaches, stomach problems and weight loss, some of the same symptoms that had accompanied her 1932 illness. In June Stieglitz wrote to Dove that "Georgia has had a nervous breakdown.--Has been laid up for 4 weeks.--Came back [from Hawaii] in bad condition.--For the present there is no thought of Lake George or anywhere else for either of us.... I do hope that Georgia will get on her feet again somehow. There seems no end." (32) Again, there were months of recovery and no painting until October. For O'Keeffe's part, she told her friend Henry McBride that she was following her doctor's recovery regimen assiduously, but "As far as I can make out there isn't much the matter with me except that I was tired, and had been too tired too long." (33)

She was right, to the extent that chronic exhaustion was a long-term nemesis for her. Although not diagnosed as such, it was clearly a component of recurring depression. When O'Keeffe grew overtired, compounded by the stresses of her professional or personal life, it was likely to overtake her. What O'Keeffe had neglected to do in 1939 was to tend her "plot" with the kind of "absurd care" she had promised herself seven years earlier. She would rededicate herself to it as the years passed, and the task became easier as she lived increasingly on her own in the West. Her growing financial independence in the 1930s afforded O'Keeffe the opportunity to take back her reputation from Stieglitz and to start to live out her own myth.

Emily Carr provides another model for the ways the creative path offers a means of transforming or healing the self. The Canadian painter's health affected her creativity periodically, and in ways curiously similar to the experiences of Georgia O'Keeffe. Perhaps the most striking parallel lies in the major breakdown Carr experienced in 1902--an illness arising out of emotional stress manifested in physical symptoms. It appears very similar to the one O'Keeffe would suffer 30 years later. Both artists were diagnosed with forms of hysteria, that vaguely defined malady often seen among women decades ago.

Carr had been studying art in England for several years, including two years at London's Westminster School of Art and eight months in the Cornish fishing village of St. Ives. Despite artistic growth, her experience in Britain had been of mixed success. At times she was intensely homesick for British Columbia, where she had been born and grew up. That emotion was compounded by her feeling (often mentioned in her writings) that fellow students dismissed her as a "colonial." London itself disagreed with her, she decided, blaming her frequent attacks of nausea and migraine headaches on the urban environment. Carr's own accounts of this period, written later and with free embellishment, are both contradictory and vague. She caught the flu; then, over a period of months she developed an array of symptoms: numbness in her right arm and leg, vomiting, difficulty with vision and speech. Carr's sister Lizzie came from Victoria to care for her, and the two moved from one rural boarding house to another in search of rest and recovery for Emily.

Temporary improvement gave way to a sharp decline late in 1902, when a London doctor diagnosed "nervous breakdown" and ordered several months of rest. The following January Emily entered the East Anglia Sanatorium, where she spent 15 months. Primarily a tuberculosis hospital, it also treated patients with some other ailments, including hysteria, the diagnosis entered for Carr in the institution's records. Her treatment regimen was unlikely to please anyone, least of all the intractable, angry Carr: hot and cold baths, alternate overfeeding and fasting, and electroshock therapy.

Carr later gave confusing explanations for this hospital stay, ranging from anemia to exhaustion, though she also referred on occasion to her "crack-up." Most consistent was her attribution of illness to a combination of the flu, overwork, and the confinements of city life. Her biographers have speculated on the causes in a wildly inclusive lexicon: insecurity, irritability, and sexual conflicts, combined with the pressure on her to succeed as an artist, are the most frequently mentioned. All contain a grain of truth, but none encompasses the larger affliction Carr suffered: depression.

To set forth her own version of events, Carr wrote Pause, a book about her experience in the "San." It is an account written late in her life and published posthumously, eight years after her death. She subtitled it "A Sketch Book," and illustrated it with drawings of the hospital's patients and the animals that provided Carr with solace there. In Pause Carr downplayed the possibility of emotional issues and played up (as O'Keeffe would later do) the exhaustion angle. In an "author's note" at the beginning of the text Carr introduced herself in a brisk, third-person fashion:
The Fat Girl and Her Failure

   The fat girl came from the far west where the forests are
   magnificent and solemn but no singing birds are there.
   The fat girl found birds in the early days of her sojourn in
   England. She heard a thrush sing. It was a poor prisoner
   in London, broken tailed and bedabbled, in such a dirty
   cage, but the pure song coming from its dreary prison
   touched the fat girl. By and by illness came and the fat
   girl subsided into a San with a limp and a stutter. Then it
   was that the plan came to her to rear some thrushes and
   take home to her glorious silent woods. The fat girl
   bucked up. Spring came, birds built. The fat girl waddled
   forth with her stick and watched for many weeks the
   pretty mothers build and sit and hatch their clean and
   ugly babes. (34)

What an introduction! Carr's title, including the negative self-appellations of "fat" and "failure" is a revealing one, denigrating a self she finds deficient in both body and character. The "San" clearly represented a nadir in Carr's life, a time when she despised herself while at the same time pitying her lot. She identified, it seems, with the thrush: a "poor prisoner in London" but capable of producing a "pure song." What exactly was Carr's perceived failure, anyway? Being fat, getting sick, sublimating her despair through nature?

At Sunhill Sanatorium there was no opportunity for serious artistic effort. Excitement was forbidden; rest, fresh air, and healthful food formed each day's regimen. But that did not stop Carr from memorizing her surroundings; immediately after she left Sunhill she recorded her impressions in a little sketchbook, filling it with doggerel verse and caricatures of her animal and human companions there. By 1938, when Carr added a written text to the notebook for publication, she was an experienced writer and recounted her tales in vivid, embellished prose. About herself as a patient, she admitted in Pause to impatience and intolerance; never in her life could Carr suffer fools or sycophants. Of the hospital's chief physician, she wrote, "Doctor Sally Bottle, I frankly despised for a toady. She licked the boots of the wealthy and fairly ate the feet off a title." It was an attitude that would resurface frequently in Carr's life. Yet she understood her own recalcitrance as a patient too: "I was not always polite, not always biddable. The monotony bored me. I despised the everlasting red tape, the sheep-like stupidity." (35)

In later years Carr experienced many personal frustrations that undercut her creativity. Chief among them was her sour travail as a landlady, a long attempt to earn her own living in economic hard times. The everlasting chores associated with running a boarding house--cooking, cleaning, gardening, but most especially dealing with difficult tenants--often brought her low. And yet, out of that negative experience came another book, The House of All Sorts, in which Carr vented her considerable spleen against those tenants. Unable to paint with any regularity during her landlady years, she nonetheless relieved her depression by allowing it to speak, putting all her travails down on paper.

Besides in her books, Carr regularly confessed her changing moods to her journal. When she grew saturnine, it was often recorded (similarly to O'Keeffe's descriptions) as darkness or a weight upon her: "A heaviness descended upon me this afternoon, a great, black foreboding cloud. Why? I cannot shake it." Or, "Heavy today. Such a weight upon me.... Weariness and rheumatic joints try to down me and I have to flog my spirit to rise and fly over them." Sometimes the weight became so heavy it seemed to press her down to the floor: "I have been real 'rag rug' level this week no inspiration." (36)


Occasionally, when overcast or dripping skies forced her to stay in, Carr succumbed to the dark moods of winter. On a February day when she was smarting under recent criticism of both her writing and her painting, she vented her frustration to her journal:
   Well, today has been like a day of lead. Why are there
   days when yeast, gunpowder and champagne are lifeless
   and you are brown and sagging as a rotten apple ... Life's
   hideous just now, everyone anxious and pinched and
   unnatural and sore about something. Some wicked fairy
   has turned all the blood and flesh hearts into affairs of
   fire and lead and stone, with all the warm soft gone out,
   just a hard, dry ache and a hungry want. Where have you
   gone to, Joy? You are ached out of existence. (37)

Carr's spirits often lifted when she could escape to the outdoors, and her most ebullient self emerges in contact with the grandness of the British Columbia rain forest. But even there depression could descend. While camping and painting among her beloved trees in midsummer 1935, another black mood descended suddenly: "Something's happened, I don't know what. A cloud and a heaviness is on this place. It doesn't speak anymore. The wind is rude and rough, the skies have lost their lofty blue graciousness. I don't want to work. My heart is like a weight inside me." (38) Yet she emerged once again, restored by immersion in the natural world. Her canvas Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935; Fig. 4) is a testament to that restoration. It was painted, coincidentally, the same year as O'Keeffe's redemptive Ram's Head-White Hollyhock-Little Hills, New Mexico, and in these clearly autobiographical paintings, each artist has created a symbolic self-portrait in natural forms. With their great sweeps of bones or trees flung across the sky, they are paintings about reconnections and reintegrations within nature and within the artists themselves. Both are metaphors of creative regeneration after bouts with depression.

Over time, Carr learned to combat depression in a variety of ways: by slogging away at drawings and paintings until the dark lifted; by reading, especially the poetry of Walt Whitman; and by writing, whether stories or journaling in her own inventive, idiosyncratic prose. Sometimes she simply allowed herself to submit to the weight of sadness. To a friend, Nan Cheney, she offered counsel (as O'Keeffe had to Blanche Matthias) by revealing something of her own cathartic efforts to fight depression:

I am so sory [sic] your miseries are so prolongered it is so disheartening when one can't hurry despite the best intentions of oneself & the most violent efforts. I know all about it & can truly sympathize but can now see that forcing is no good keeping as happy as one can, & occupying your thoughts with other things helps. In demonstration of this, I had a bout of crying lasting 12 hours & let myself enjoy it to the full & have been better ever since. Washed away lots of sediment We Britishers have forced for so long ourselves to be strong and put on a surface of heroics & smash under all feeling, that we've over-bottled ourselves, & it's hard to let go. (39) (Carr's emphasis)

Carr's self-administered treatment for emotional and physical ills also included fasting, which seemed to lighten both mind and body: " I have just come off a three days' starve and feel fine. We eat too much. It is my cure for neuralgia and such-like pains. Orange and grapefruit juice only for three days. How clean and easy one feels after, gay as pyjamas on the line on windy wash days." (40)

Toward the end of their artistic lives, Carr and O'Keeffe faced inevitable physical decline in various ways. The last eight years of Carr's life were slowed by heart problems, but she kept remarkably active. At the outset of that period she asked herself, "What has 1937 contributed to life? Invalidism. Teaching me what? Alice [her sister] says I've been sweet-tempered over it. Perhaps I've been too busy to cuss for I've written a lot, painted a lot, and have had lots of visitors. Illness has not meant idleness." (41)

Carr made friends promise to tell her if and when her painting deteriorated in quality. As the last years unfolded, more of her time and energies went into writing, work she often accomplished in bed. Carr thus accommodated the last stage of her life with characteristic pragmatism, and often with more sanguine temper, even humor, than she had shown in previous periods. Working abed she could tolerate; what she minded was the decrepit physical self she saw: "It is the ugliness of old age I hate. Being old is not bad if you keep away from mirrors, but broken-down feet, bent knees, peering eyes, rheumatic knuckles, withered skin, these are ugly, hard to tolerate with patience." (42)

The will to keep working was strong in Georgia O'Keeffe's long life as well. When her eyesight failed in the early 1970s, she tried working in clay, then asked those around her for assistance in painting. Several young helpers enabled her to fix on canvas the shapes and colors she still wanted to summon from the remembered store in her mind.

How can we finally assess these two artists' health in relation to their creativity? Although each artist reacted differently to the mutability of her body and mind, we see clearly in those histories the profound impact of will, or perhaps resilience, on artistic production. Despite periods of illness, depression, and inactivity, Carr and O'Keeffe possessed a will or stubbornness that fired the creative process; this can be seen as an organizing feature of their personalities. Both were interested in the primary processes of life and death; they yearned for intense experience, for change, and for the exercise of their deepest energies. Neither would have chosen depression or physical illness as a means to experience life's processes; still, in spite of its toll in sadness, exhaustion, and anxiety, depression--or at least the long process of recovery from its episodes--also birthed artistic breakthroughs, especially for O'Keeffe.

Journeying alone through the fragmentation illness created in their lives, Carr and O'Keeffe gained new appreciation for health and wholeness. Perhaps not surprisingly, in each life wholeness and autonomy were linked in observable ways. By achieving some measure of autonomy and by exercising their own wills, these women discovered ways to put their creativity back on track. In Carr's life two distinct passages reveal the process: first, she learned from her sojourns and illness in Europe how important her attachment to home, nation, and nature were for her well-being. Later, after years spent struggling to find an artist-identity, Carr's autonomy was restored when she finally retrieved her energies from the apartment house that had sapped her for so long. Without those nagging demands she moved into a more calmly productive period of her life.

For O'Keeffe, recovering wholeness in her life meant confronting her fundamental vision of achievement. When her health broke following the failed Radio City mural in 1932, she was forced to recognize that her vision of success had demanded too high a price from her. In the course of recovery she had to learn to say no--or at least "not now"--to the heroics of the ego. Letting go of that bondage eventually gave her a sense of her own autonomy and restored a measure of wholeness to a shattered ego. Broadly speaking, sickness led Carr and O'Keeffe into confrontation with the deepest ranges of the self, where creativity and despair mingle. There they discovered new reservoirs of strength for living out their own particular realities, and there too, they ultimately acquired a larger understanding of what it means to be whole and human. To many of their admirers their creative paths have provided useful and inspiring models for living.

Sharyn Udall is an art historian whose most recent book was Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of their Own (2000). She is currently at work on a book and exhibition about subjects of the dance in American art.


(1.) Peter D. Kramer, Against Depression (New York: Viking, 2005), xiii, 189.

(2.) Ferenczi wrote, "Man is an organism with specific organs for the performance of essential psychic functions (nervous, intellectual activities). Sandor Ferenczi, "Thinking with the Body equals Hysteria," in The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi, J. Dupont, ed., M. Balint and N.Z. Jackson, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1988), 5-6.

(3.) Emily Carr, journal entry for December 25, 1935, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist (Toronto: Irwin, 1966), 212-13 (hereafter Hundreds and Thousands).

(4.) O'Keeffe to Anita Pollitzer, February 9, 1916, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library (hereafter YCAL).

(5.) O'Keeffe, quoted in Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Seaview, 1980), 67.

(6.) O'Keeffe to Paul Strand, October 30, 1917, quoted in Roxana Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 192.

(7.) Barbara Buhler Lynes, O'Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics 1916-1929 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 70.

(8.) O'Keeffe to Sherwood Anderson, February 22, 1924, in Jack Cowart et al., Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1987), no. 30, p. 176 (hereafter Art and Letters).

(9.) Stieglitz to Herbert J. Seligmann, August 20, 1926, YCAL.

(10.) Stieglitz to Herbert J. Seligmann, August 22, 1926, YCAL.

(11.) O'Keeffe to Blanche Matthias, March 1926, in Art and Letters no. 36, p. 183.

(12.) Stieglitz to Herbert J. Seligmann, June 28, 1928, YCAL.

(13.) O'Keeffe to Sherwood Anderson, June 11, 1924, in Art and Letters, no. 31, p. 178.

(14.) O'Keeffe to Waldo Frank, January 10, 1927, in Art and Letters, no. 38, pp. 184-85.

(15.) O'Keeffe to Ettie Stettheimer, August 24, 1929, in Art and Letters, no. 49, p. 195.

(16.) O'Keeffe to Blanche Matthias, April 1929 in Art and Letters, no. 43, p. 188.

(17.) Rebecca S. Strand to Stieglitz from Taos, May 14, 1929, YCAL

(18.) O'Keeffe to Ettie Stettheimer, August 24, 1929, in Art and Letters, no. 49, p. 195.

(19.) O'Keeffe to Mabel Dodge Luhan, September 1929, in Art and Letters, no. 50, p. 196.

(20.) Stieglitz to Arthur Dove, January 19, 1933, in Ann Lee Morgan, ed. Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove (Newark: Univ. of Delaware, 1988), 263.

(21.) Leo Janis, "Georgia O'Keeffe at Eighty-four," Atlantic Monthly (December 1971), quoted in Lisle, 198.

(22.) O'Keeffe to Rebecca Salsbury Strand, August 1933, YCAL.

(23.) O'Keeffe to Russell Vernon Hunter, October 21, 1933, in Art and Letters, 213.

(24.) O'Keeffe to Jean Toomer, January 3, 1934, in Art and Letters, no. 67, p. 216.

(25.) O'Keeffe to Jean Toomer, January 10, 1934 in Art and Letters, no. 68, p. 217.

(26.) O'Keeffe to Toomer, March 5, 1934, in Art and Letters, no. 70, p. 219.

(27.) O'Keeffe to Toomer, February 8, 1934, in Art and Letters, no. 69, p. 218. The sense of physical oppression by others, expressed here by O'Keeffe, is curiously similar to remarks made by Emily Carr, who sometimes felt attacked by people. Wrote Carr, "It is funny ... how I sought my companionship out in woods and trees rather than persons. It was as if they had hit and hurt me and made me mad, and cut me off, so that I went howling back like a smacked child to Mother Nature." See Carr, journal entry for January 28, 1936, Hundreds and Thousands, 219.

(28.) "I can't Sing, So I Paint! Says Ultra Realistic Artist; Art Is Not Photography--It is Expression of Inner Life!: Miss Georgia O'Keeffe Explains Subjective Aspect of her Work," New York Sun (December 5, 1922), 22, quoted in Lynes, O'Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 180-82.

(29.) Stieglitz to Dove, February 1935, in Morgan, ed. Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove, 304.

(30.) Lewis Mumford, "The Art Galleries: Autobiographies in Paint," The New Yorker 11, no. 4 (January 18, 1936): 48.

(31.) Mumford, "Autobiographies in Paint," 48.

(32.) Stieglitz to Dove, June 16, 1939 in Morgan, ed. Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove, 420.

(33.) O'Keeffe, letter to Henry McBride, July 22, 1939, YCAL.

(34.) Emily Carr, "Author's Note," Pause ([1953]; Toronto: Stoddart, 1995), 3.

(35.) Carr, "Me," in Pause, 57.

(36.) Carr, journal entries for December 1, 1933 and March 26, 1934, Hundreds and Thousands, 85, 104. The last sentence is from Carr to Cheney, May 1938, in Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms, ed. Doreen Walker (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, 1990), no. 42, 83-85.

(37.) Carr, journal entry for February 8, 1935, Hundreds and Thousands, 169-74.

(38.) Carr, journal entry for July 2, 1935, Hundreds and Thousands, 188.

(39.) Carr, letter to Nan Cheney, postmarked August 12, 1940, reprinted in Dear Nan, 242.

(40.) Carr, journal entry for December 8, 1933, Hundreds and Thousands, 86.

(41.) Carr, journal entry for December 31, 1937, Hundreds and Thousands, 297-98.

(42.) Carr, journal entry for February 21, 1941, Hundreds and Thousands, 331.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Udall, Sharyn R.
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:The art of Helen Lundeberg: illuminating portraits.
Next Article:Elizabeth Murray.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |