Georgia O'Keeffe


What if a whole new world existed beyond the reality we see before us?

That’s what Georgia O'Keeffe brought to life in her art, again and again.

Born in Wisconsin in 1887, Georgia O'Keeffe demonstrated artistic talent from a young age. This isn’t surprising, really. Her whole family was involved in the arts and despite her gender and the times, her parents saw to it that she learn to paint.

Georgia’s formal artistic training commenced in 1905 when she took up studies first at the Art Institute of Chicago then, a year later, at the Art Students League in New York. In both places, however, she felt constrained by a tradition that emphasized copying and recreating in art what is seen in real life.

That all changed in the early 1910s when Georgia discovered the art and philosophy of Arthur Wesley Dow. An American painter, printmaker, photographer, and influential arts educator, Dow believed in creating works based on the personal interpretation of subjects, rather than on their mere representation. His teachings freed Georgia and offered her an alternative to the prevailing artistic tradition of the day: Realism. From that point forward, she eschewed tradition to invent a personal visual language through which to express her unique view of the world.

In 1915, Georgia created a series of abstract charcoal drawings that betrayed her as one of the very first American artists to practice abstraction in art. Friends acknowledged the revolutionary nature of her work and sent them off to the prolific art dealer and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, in New York. He was equally floored and mounted the first-ever exhibit O’Keeffe’s work in 1916. By the 1920s, O'Keeffe earned accolades as the Mother of the American Modernist Movement.

Second, Out of My Head.  1915. One of O'Keeffe's charcoal drawings from the National Gallery of Art Archives.

Second, Out of My Head. 1915. One of O'Keeffe's charcoal drawings from the National Gallery of Art Archives.

While in New York, O'Keeffe was fascinated by the impact of industrialization on the landscape. She focused her energies on rendering skyscrapers and was particularly inspired by the new and developing artistic medium of her mentor-cum-husband: photography.

Nature, however, continued to call to her. In 1929, she moved to New Mexico full time, where she rediscovered that love. There, she painted the sprawling desert landscapes, skulls, and flowers she is most known for today.

As O’Keeffe’s fame grew, she traveled the world, and her art continued to grow and evolve alongside her expanding worldview. She painted the peaks of the Peruvian Andes, and the magnificence of Japan’s Mount Fuji. She found more and more details in clouds, sky, and mountains. She pursued this fascination well into her seventies.

Blue and Green Music.  A painting by O'Keeffe from the Art Institute of Chicago Archives.

Blue and Green Music. A painting by O'Keeffe from the Art Institute of Chicago Archives.

That’s about when macular degeneration robbed O'Keeffe's of her eyesight. But would she let stop her what to some would be an insurmountable obstacle? No! She completed her final unassisted work in 1972, but she carried on working with the help of assistants until her death at the age of 98.

While unable to see, O'Keeffe drew upon her rich imagination and her memories to inspire her art. “I can see what I want to paint,” she said in 1977, at age ninety. “The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”

O'Keeffe died in 1986, leaving behind a tremendous body of work as well as a legacy of courage and determination to create despite her gender and the loss of a visual artists’ main asset: her vision. She is remembered as one of the most inspired American artists of her generation, and a true pioneer. Her works continue to inspire millions of artists and art lovers to this day.

Georgia O'Keeffe reinvented the way one might understand the world, again and again. She carried on creating and expressing her point of view even beyond to ability to see in the real sense of the word. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Larkin Oates of Nashville, TN, for nominating her and to the Tate Modern for exhibiting her works and inspiring this post.

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