Georgia O’Keeffe (Sun Prairie, 1887 – Santa Fe, 1986) was one of most innovative American artists in the years when painting broke away from of realism. The pioneer of a non-objective art that mixes clarity of vision and emotive urgency, she developed a personal approach to abstraction and a compositional method best expressed in her celebrated and intensely sensual flower paintings.
The book interweaves the artist’s personal and artistic life against the background of figures of the calibre of Steichen, Strand, Demuth, Dove, Marin and Hartley in a highly representative slice of the artistic expression of the American short century. Born in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe had a childhood marked by financial crises and frequent upheavals. At the age of 20 she was in Chicago, where she continued her studies, began to work as an illustrator and took her first steps in the universe of creativity under the guidance of Arthur Wesley Dow. It was then in New York that she met the older married man who was to become her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, an acclaimed photographer and gallery owner, who was to leave a deep imprint on her future.
They started living together and it was under his wing that she matured as an artist and a muse. They addressed the same subjects, exchanged ideas and influenced one another. Familiarity with photography enabled O’Keeffe to develop a style rooted in realism – albeit of an abstract kind – based on techniques borrowed from photography. She managed to establish herself in the artistic community, something unprecedented for a woman at a time when painting was practically a male preserve.
Though loath to accept social and family obligations, which were hard to reconcile with her fierce need for solitude, she agreed to marry Stieglitz in 1924 and reached the peak of her creative blossoming three years later. This is the period of the floral and urban paintings that were to set a trend in 20th-century America. She built up a solid reputation during the long years spent in New York with breaks at their summer house on Lake George. O’Keeffe’s story is also one of suffering accompanied by setbacks in her professional and private life. Success did not make her immune to wounds and she often felt misunderstood by her most faithful champions.
Averse to labels, she had a tormented relationship with male critics. When they praised her bold use of colour, she responded with subdued hues. When her broad volutes were interpreted as sexually allusive, she abandoned the subjects most charged with feeling and returned to a realistic repertoire, sometimes “filched” from male colleagues.
Fame led, however, to gradual detachment from Stieglitz, who remained faithful to his role of mentor by finding someone new to mould, namely the 20-year-old Dorothy Norman. O’Keeffe spent more and more time in New Mexico, entranced by the bleak desert landscapes strewn with the white skulls of animals, which became a further addition to her already rich store of subjects. She moved definitively to Abiquiu on Stieglitz’s death.