Artist Georgia O’Keeffe captured the special beauty of the American Southwest with her unique painting style that united modern art with images of northern New Mexico. She painted a variety of subjects that ranged from landscapes to a single flower, and sun-bleached animal bones to architecture. The largest single repository of her work is also the only American museum dedicated to a woman artist of international stature: the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
O’Keeffe was born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887 and received extensive training from 1905 to 1916 at several of the finest art schools in the United States: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League of New York, the University of Virginia and Columbia University’s Teachers College. She taught art in elementary and secondary schools and colleges in Virginia, Texas and South Carolina from 1911 to 1918. During her years of teaching, she was also developing her own style.
Her abstract charcoal drawings got the attention of Alfred Steiglitz, a well-known photographer who owned the 291 gallery in New York. He displayed her work in a group show in 1916, then as a solo artist exhibit the following year. She was on her way back to Texas in 1917 when she stopped in Santa Fe for the first time.
It would be several years yet before New Mexico would play such a prominent role in her life. She had moved to New York in 1918 at the invitation of Steiglitz. He offered financial support and promoted her work heavily. They were married in 1924 after his divorce from his first wife was finalized. During the 1920s, O’Keeffe’s paintings alternated from city scenes of skyscrapers and aerial views to the landscapes and flowers of Lake George, the couple’s summer home.
By 1929, she needed a change to rejuvenate her health and her artistic talent. She went to New Mexico for an extended vacation and when she returned to New York, her new work was exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery. This would become an almost-annual pattern for the next 20 years. She often stayed in New Mexico up to six months at a time to paint scenes inspired by the desert landscape but would spend winters in New York, her new work ready to be displayed.
She bought her first home in New Mexico in 1940 at Ghost Ranch. Situated 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the landscape served as her inspiration for more than 40 years. The way that she used modern art to portray the American Southwest prompted some to refer to her work as surreal. One of her favorite subjects was the flat-topped Pedernal which she could see from her home. She remarked that if she painted it often enough, that “God would give it to me.” Ghost Ranch is now owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and serves as an education and retreat center that includes several months of art workshops as part of its annual programs.
Her second home in New Mexico was purchased in December 1945 in Abiquiu. It was rundown but she had it restored over the next four years. It eventually became her winter residence. Stieglitz died in 1946. After O’Keeffe settled his estate and distributed his art collection to museums and other public institutions, she moved to New Mexico permanently in 1949. Abiquiu, also owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, offers periodic tours throughout the year but the house is not open to the public without advance scheduling. It remains much the way it was when the artist lived there. She found the black door in the large walled patio to be particularly inspirational for her work.
She received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1977. She had become frail and was losing her eyesight so, in 1984, she moved to a house in Santa Fe to be closer to medical facilities. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She died in Santa Fe in 1986 at the age of 98.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a lasting tribute to the artist who redefined modern art by uniting her own unique style and the American Southwest. She was a prolific artist, having produced over 2,000 known works. To learn more about her life and art, the museum website link is provided below.
By: Cynthia Collins
Photo of Pedernal by Georgia O’Keeffe is used for informational purposes only.