Art History Lessons: Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘mother of American modernism’

Art History Lessons: Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘mother of American modernism’

The Who, When, Where, What and Works of artist Georgia O’Keeffe

Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz.
Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz.

Who: Georgia O’Keeffe (Nov. 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986)

When: O’Keeffe’s career began in 1905 when she started studying at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and Art Students League of New York, but it took off after she came across Arthur Wesley Dow, whose abstract works influenced her artistic philosophy.

She sent her own abstract drawings to a friend in New York, who then showed them to art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz — the first to exhibit O’Keeffe’s work in 1916 and the man who would soon after become her lover and husband. Through Stieglitz, O’Keeffe met many fellow artists who would go on to further inspire her work.

"No. 8 - Special (Drawing No. 8),"1916. Georgia O'Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
“No. 8 – Special (Drawing No. 8),”1916. Georgia O’Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Where: O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin, but her art career led her all across the United States. Her art is most tied to New York and New Mexico, where she spent a majority of her working life. In the 1920s, she painted many scenes of New York City from her 30th floor apartment in the now-closed Shelton Hotel. She also began painting her renowned flowers during this time.

“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

In 1929, she traveled to New Mexico with a friend, and after falling in love with the desert landscape and the Native and Hispanic heritage infused in the state, she returned annually until 1949, when she finally made New Mexico her permanent home. The land and its inhabitants are featured in many of her later works.

“Flower Abstraction,”1924. Georgia O’Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 50th Anniversary Gift of Sandra Payson. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS).
“Flower Abstraction,”1924. Georgia O’Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 50th Anniversary Gift of Sandra Payson. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS).

What: O’Keeffe is known as the “mother of American modernism.” Modernism was a reflection of the times; as industrialization grew in the early 20th century, artists depicted the rapid advancement and urbanization in their work, eschewing more traditional practices of art for the new and experimental.

O’Keeffe had always made a point to make her works uniquely her, and so her works fit the times. However, her prominence as a leading artist and figure in the Modernist movement was often downplayed due to her gender. To this point, in 1946, she was the first woman artist to have a dedicated retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

”Morning Sky,”1916. Georgia O’Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from The Lauder Foundation - Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Fund, Gilbert and Ann Maurer and the Drawing Committee. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS),
”Morning Sky,”1916. Georgia O’Keeffe. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from The Lauder Foundation – Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Fund, Gilbert and Ann Maurer and the Drawing Committee. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Works: In addition to ongoing exhibitions held at museums across the world, O’Keeffe’s works can be found in the robust online collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which offers a free look at over a thousand pieces from the artist, gathering together her well-known abstract floral paintings and early line drawings.

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Top Image: Courtesy of Left: Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz. Right: Georgia O'Keeffe. "Music, Pink and Blue No. 2," 1918. Oil on canvas, 35 x 29 15/16 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong, 91.90. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.