Born on the 15th November 1887 on a farm in Wisconsin, with Irish origins on her father’s side, Hungarian on her mother’s, Georgia O’Keeffe decided to become a painter when she was just 12 years old. She started her training at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905, then after winning a scholarship, went on to the Art Students League in New York, overseen by William Merritt Chase who had impressionist tendencies.

In the Big Apple, she met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and owner of the avant-garde Gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue, who would become her partner ten years later, then her spouse in 1924. In the meantime, Georgia, little inclined towards academic teaching and allergic to the smell of turpentine, contemplated giving up painting until Arthur Wesley Dow, whose teaching was based on the principles of Japanese art, restored her taste for it at a summer school in Virginia. This encounter, along with Kandinsky’s theories on abstraction, would set out the foundations of her career.

Hibiscus, 1931. Image iva Barnebys Hibiscus, 1931. Image iva Barnebys

Read more about Wassily Kandinsky and the pictorial language of modern abstraction.

New York, New York

Wilfully solitary and a voyager by nature, Georgia O’Keeffe stayed for some time in Texas, where she gave drawing lessons. With the help of a photographer friend she met at Columbia, she held her first exhibition at Gallery 291 in 1917, and from this time onwards, her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz would intensify for the next fifteen years.

Georgia became the photographer’s muse, and he introduced her to several modernist artists in his circle of friends: Demuth, Dove, Harley, Steichen… Through this contact, her works, including urban landscapes, close-ups of flowers, and depictions of Lake George – became more distinctive, shifting from water colours to oils, and moving towards abstraction. In the 1920s, she featured in a string of exhibitions in New York, where she became a frontline artist. Commissions followed.

Lake-George-Reflection, 1921-1922. Image via Barnebys Lake-George-Reflection, 1921-1922. Image via Barnebys

The nourishing desert

At the start of the 1930s, she visited New Mexico on a regular basis to find new sources of inspiration, and she would present, on canvas, the emotional states and sensations that desert landscapes woke in her.

After going through a depression, which prevented her from finishing a mural for the Radio City Music Hall in New York, she moved permanently to the Ghost Ranch region, near the village of Abiquiu, in 1940. At that point, her work tended towards the fantastic, and two retrospectives were devoted to her in the middle of the decade, at the Art Institute of Chicago, then the MoMA in New York, where she became the first female artist to be given this “honour”…

Corn No. III, 1924. Image via Barnebys Corn No. III, 1924. Image via Barnebys

A victim of a heart attack, Alfred Stieglitz died in July 1946, and although their relationship had become more distant, Georgia O’Keeffe would spend three years looking after his estate, making an inventory of over 4,000 works and tens of thousands of letters.

Glory and hermitage

She returned to her New Mexico estate in 1949, and in spite of herself, cultivated her hermit image there, even if she was showered with honorific distinctions: she was appointed as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the National Medal of Arts.

Two Calla Lilies Together,1923. Image via Barnebys Two Calla Lilies Together,1923. Image via Barnebys

The 1960s, with its host of artistic movements and trends, compounded by her voluntary isolation in the desert, somewhat relegated her to the background of the American art scene,  but her work would be presented in a new retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan in 1970.

Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1931. Image via Barnebys Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1931. Image via Barnebys

As of 1972, suffering from blindness, she could no longer paint, but continued to draw until the early 1980s. She relied on the services of a potter friend to assist her in her work and to write her autobiography.

On 6 March 1986, Georgia O’Keeffe, 98 years old, died in Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico where, around ten years later, a museum dedicated to her would open. Her painting Jimson Weed / White Flower No.1, which belonged to the museum’s collection, went on sale in November 2014 at Sotheby’s, New York, and set the record of 44.4 million dollars. In 2016, the Tate Modern in London held the first major posthumous retrospective on the American artist in Europe. An artist finally getting the recognition that she deserves.

Jimson Weed:White Flower No. 1. Image via Barnebys Jimson Weed:White Flower No. 1. Image via Barnebys

Jimson Weed / White Flower No.1 was created in 1932 and is a great example of her most enduring motifs - the innovative and unique rendering of the flower. She started to explore the flower motif early on. She once said it was easy to overlook the beauty in the details of a flower, so she decided to paint them in a large scale, so that even busy new yorkers would have to stop and look at them.

Georgia O’Keeffe created highly detailed yet abstract work and didn’t really follow any form of movement. Her works created a breaking point between abstraction and realism, emphasizing the primary forms of nature - some detailed others stripped of parts she didn’t see as essential in the focus on shape and color.

Gorgia O'Keeffe. Image via Gorgia O'Keeffe. Image via

Her late work, created between 1940 and 1960, remained grounded in representation, while many of her contemporaries moved towards a non-representative imagery. Her ability to capture that fine line between representation and abstraction is central to her singular language of modernism - a language that remains just as strong today.

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