How Georgia O’Keeffe Became One of the Most Celebrated American Artists of the 20th-Century

Claire Selvin

BY CLAIRE SELVIN

May 13, 2020 3:16pm

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/Shutterstock (10297475a) Georgia OKeeffe, portrait by Carl Van Vechten, August 16, 1950. lc-usz62-16606 Historical Collection

Lovers of American art history have always had a soft spot for Georgia O’Keeffe, who is best known for her dreamy paintings of plant life and southwestern landscapes. Today, she is considered one of the most famous American modernists, with works held in the collections of the country’s biggest museums and an institution devoted to her alone in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But, even though she earned unusual visibility during the early part of the 20th-century, she had for years not held that reputation. The guide below traces some of the key moments in O’Keeffe’s rise to fame, from her early years on a farm in Wisconsin to her formative first visit to New Mexico. 

O’Keeffe came from humble beginnings.
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, born in 1887 to Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida Totto O’Keeffe, was the second of seven children in her family. She was raised on a dairy farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and began studying art from an early age. After O’Keeffe graduated from high school in 1905, she headed to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she spent one year before attending the Art Students League in New York. Upon her graduation in 1908, the artist was awarded the William Merritt Chase still life prize for the painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)

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Georgia O’Keeffe in a portrait by Alfred Stieglitz from 1918.EVERETT/SHUTTERSTOCK

In her youth, the artist was influenced by the artist Arthur Wesley Dow.
The theories and ideas of the artist and arts educator Arthur Wesley Dow had a significant impact on O’Keeffe early in her career. Known for his lyrical landscape paintings and detailed studies of plant life, Dow downplayed the importance of realism in favor of art works that were emotionally and spiritually expressive. His notions about what color and line could communicate would inspire O’Keeffe’s practice. 

O’Keeffe spent several years as an art teacher.
The artist worked as an educator in Texas and South Carolina after she completed her own schooling. During those years, O’Keeffe continued working on her own pieces, and she completed the abstract charcoal drawing Drawing XIII in 1915. That work, which depicts four rounded protrusions in a shell-like encasement and is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, was part of a series that would soon reach the eyes of the photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who would organize many subsequent exhibitions of O’Keeffe’s work and later marry her.

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Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz in 1936.EVERETT/SHUTTERSTOCK

Stieglitz helped cement O’Keeffe’s reputation in New York.
In 1916, O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings were included in a group exhibition Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York, and she would receive her first solo show at the enterprise the following year. During this period O’Keeffe also visited New Mexico, where she would frequently travel over the next 30 years, for the first time. The artist made a permanent move to New York in 1918, taking up residence in a studio apartment on East 59th Street that Stieglitz, its usual occupant, was not using at the time. Throughout her time in New York, O’Keeffe would paint dynamic, eerie depictions of the city’s imposing skyscrapers.

That same year, Stieglitz left his first wife, Emmeline Obermeyer Stieglitz, whom he married in 1893, to move in with O’Keeffe. Images of O’Keeffe appear in Stieglitz’s 1921 retrospective at the Anderson Galleries, and two years later the photographer organized an exhibition of 100 works by O’Keeffe at the same outpost. When Stieglitz’s divorce was finalized in 1924, the couple married in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.

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Georgia O’Keeffe with one of her skull paintings in 1931.EVERETT/SHUTTERSTOCK

O’Keeffe rose to fame during the 1920s.
O’Keeffe got her first retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927, and her work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time two years later, when it appeared in a group show titled “Paintings by 19 Living Americans.” (O’Keeffe was the only woman whose work was included in that exhibition, which also featured pieces by Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, and Pop Hart. In 1940, she became the first woman to have a major solo show at MoMA.) In these years, O’Keeffe also made her first visit to the town of Taos, in northern New Mexico, and the content of the artist’s work began to favor depictions of landscapes and flowers over more abstracted subjects.

Following Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe relocated full-time to New Mexico.
In 1946, a few years after O’Keeffe’s retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, Stieglitz died at age 82. Three years later, in 1949, O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico, where she split her time between Abiquiú in the northern part of the state and Ghost Ranch, a spot north of Abiquiú that the artist had visited regularly since 1934. During the 1950s O’Keeffe began making international journeys to Peru, Japan, Italy, India, and other places whose landscapes would figure in her paintings.

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Georgia O’Keeffe in her home at Ghost Ranch in 1968.EVERETT/SHUTTERSTOCK

In the mid-1950s, O’Keeffe corresponded with Yayoi Kusama.
Before Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama moved to the United States in 1957, she wrote a letter to O’Keeffe. Kusama, a young artist at the time, was seeking advice and opportunities to show her work in the U.S. In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Kusama said that O’Keeffe “responded with great kindness and generosity” to her initial letter, adding that the exchange “gave me the courage I needed to leave for New York.”

The artist’s eyesight deteriorated in the 1970s.
O’Keeffe’s vision took a turn for the worse in the early 1970s, and she created her last oil painting without assistance, The Beyond, which depicts an abstracted, glowing horizon line, in 1972. She would continue making watercolors, drawings, and sculptures in the following years. O’Keeffe notably received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1977 and the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Having moved to Santa Fe in 1984, O’Keeffe died in 1986 at age 98.

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