Woman of the Week: Georgia O'Keeffe
Our 'Woman of the Week' series celebrates the women of the past and present that epitomise The Unstated woman. Resilient, benevolent, progressive and inspirational, these women are pioneers of the modern age.
Our fourth instalment in the series reflects on the life and achievements of one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Georgia O'Keeffe. Recognised for her eminent still lives (many of flora), O'Keeffe paid little attention to the trends and movements of the times she was working in, perhaps owing to her longevity and continued admiration as one of the most important figures in modern art.
Born on November 15th, 1887 on a Wisconsin wheat farm, Georgia O'Keeffe knew that she wanted to be an artist form an early age and along with her sisters took lessons from a local watercolourist. After graduating from high school O'Keeffe attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she excelled, ranking at the top of her class, until she became unwell with typhoid, leading her to take a year out of education. Once she had regained health Georgia O'Keefe moved to New York to study at the Art Students League, it was here that she learned realist painting techniques from artists Kenyon Cox, F. Luis Mora and William Merritt Chase, and produced one of her most recognisable still live paintings, Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot (1908). O'Keeffe spent her time in studying in New York diversifying her notions of art, discovering the avant-garde, experimental works of modern American and European artists and began to implement this into her practice. One of her most frequented galleries was the 291, located at 291 5th Avenue, New York and founded by photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz (the latter of whom O'Keeffe had a romantic affair with for several years, becoming his muse and influencing her own work).
After studying in New York, Georgia O'Keeffe moved back to her family home in Virginia and began producing works of the familiar landscape and objects around her, painting with more expression and less realism than she has before. Through her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe developed a friendship with artists like Paul Strand, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, John Marin and Marsden Hartley and was inspired by the vivacious energy of the artists and their works. it was at this time that she began painting the pieces that she is best known for, her detailed examinations of flowers. Talking of these paintings Georgia O'Keefe expressed,
"If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."
Contemporary critics and observers of O'Keeffe's flora paintings view these pieces as an expression and celebration of unapologetic femininity. Many people denote this to the soft brushstrokes and fluid curves, and others claim that the paintings resemble female genitalia, though Georgia O'Keeffe never indicated this herself.
Following this series of paintings, O'Keeffe looked to the New York skylines as a source of inspiration, producing pieces like Shelton Hotel, New York No. 1 (1926) and City Night (1926).
Though New York and Virginia were lifelong inspirations for Georgia O'Keeffe she discovered a place that would be the stimulus for many of her most prominent pieces, New Mexico. Moved by the desert-like terrain, Navajo culture and architecture O'Keeffe's work had another evolution, she began painting still life in a manner the resembled every one of her previous phases, but held an identity of its own. During her time in New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe painted the iconic Ram’s Head, White Hollycock, Hills (1935) and Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931).
A much-celebrated artist, a decade after this O'Keeffe had her large retrospectives at Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946; this was the Museum of Modern Art's first retrospective of a female artist.
Throughout her career, Georgia O'Keeffe broke barriers as a female artist, whether it was through achievements like the formerly mentioned, or simply through her ability to encourage art consumers and institutions to consider female artists in the same manner that they did male artists. O'Keeffe made space for herself in a male-dominated industry and greater society and thus helped female artists of later generations know this is achievable.