Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was artistically gifted, and she knew that she had talent. However, she had the unfortunate circumstance of being the younger sister of Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most renowned American woman artists of the 20th century. The older O’Keeffe’s talent overshadowed her younger sister’s creative efforts and to this day, Ida O’Keeffe’s work is little-known and seldom exhibited.
Named after mother, Ida O’Keeffe wanted to pursue her artistic studies. After having worked as a nurse, she received her Master of Fine arts from Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1932, and had the chance to exhibit her work alongside her sister Catherine and both her grandmothers at New York’s Opportunity Galley in 1933. Four years later, she had a one-woman gallery exhibition at New York’s Delphic Studios and a group exhibit at the National Association of Woman Painters where she won an award for her work.
The Dallas Museum of Art will present Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow in 2017. It will be the first location of a national tour with dates and venues still to be determined. The exhibition will highlight nearly 40 paintings, prints, drawings and watercolors, together with 1920s photographs of Ida O’Keeffe taken by American photographer-promoter and brother-in-law, Alfred Stieglitz. The show will also survey her best-known works for their individual merit as well as their standing within the aesthetics of American modernism during the 1920s through the 1930s.
The younger O’Keeffe experimented with printmaking and focused on monotypes that she created with an electric iron in her apartment in New York. Her small achievements became a cause of competitive friction between the two sisters.
Laurie Lisle, Georgia O’Keeffe’s biographer, noted that there was a level of sibling rivalry and that it was clear that “Georgia wanted to be the only O’Keeffe who painted.” Georgia O’Keeffe viewed her younger sibling such a threat, that as adults, she prohibited Stieglitz from exhibiting her work, so that his sister-in-law’s road to success would be a difficult one.
Georgia O’Keeffe held back on encouraging her sister’s professional aspirations, and as her own reputation grew, Ida O’Keeffe’s artistic career diminished. The older sibling’s artwork received the most acclaim, partly attributed to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s flair for promoting art. Ida O’Keeffe, on the other hand, was unable to sell her work or find creative work to sustain her artistic dreams.
During the 1920s, Ida O’Keeffe’s art completely suited the predominant trend for realism. In the 1930s, her lighthouse series are complex abstract representations that most likely imposed “dynamic symmetry,” a design theory that interrelated art and mathematics. Her lighthouse series reveals an artist who possessed a confident, distinctive style and a well-founded understanding of color and technique. She not only exhibited her work throughout the 1930s, but she continued to win awards at several shows, including the National Association of women Painter and Sculptors.
Her work shifted toward a regional aesthetic by the 1940s, and even later, exposed a certain diminishing ability to create. In the course of the Second World War, Ida O’Keeffe briefly worked as a draftswoman in a California airplane factory, but by 1950, the gifted younger O’Keeffe found herself in need and relied on Georgia and her other siblings for support as her life began to fall apart.
Once viewers have the opportunity to survey the Ida O’Keeffe exhibit, they will note her incredible talent, and wonder why she was relatively unknown as an artist in her own right. However, according to curator of the exhibit and the DMA’s associate curator of American Art, Sue Canterbury, “it is in the shadow cast by Georgia’s celebrity and ego that we find interesting tales of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry – as well as some seeds of Ida’s thwarted professional aspirations.”
In her lifetime, Georgia O’Keeffe kept several artworks by her sister, but practically no letters. However, there are letters still in existence revealing that Stieglitz liked the younger sister a little more than Georgia O’Keeffe was willing to endure. Throughout her lifetime, Ida O’Keeffe had sporadic interaction with her sister, Georgia. Since the beginning, Stieglitz saw his sister-in-law as a welcome addition to the household and he had encouraged her visits. Surviving correspondence between the three suggested that Stieglitz flirt with the younger sibling, as he did with all women who visited the residence. Nevertheless, Ida O’Keeffe may have resembled her older sister, but her personality was markedly dissimilar.
Ida O’Keeffe died in 1961 of a stroke at age 71. Her sister, Georgia O’Keeffe, was disappointed in her younger sister and has been said to have commented to her family that it was “a wasted life,” when she died. Although, her older sibling overshadowed Ida O’Keeffe’s artistic career, she was the focus of a 1974 Santa Fe exhibition, and occasionally, her prints and paintings surface onto the art scene.
By Dawn Levesque