Bright, Bold, and Beautiful: The Art of Georgia O'Keeffe

Article excerpt

Her paintings of bleached white skulls and pelvises of deer, antelope, and cattle, floating ethereally against a backdrop of landscape and sky, create what one critic called a "vision of infinity."

GEORGIA TOTTO O'KEEFFE was born Nov. 15, 1887, to Ida (Totto) and Francis Cliyxtus O'Keeffe, three and a half miles southeast of the village of Sun Prairie, Wis. The second of seven children and the oldest of five daughters, O'Keeffe began her formal education in a one-room schoolhouse on the Totto property. In the winter of 1898, the seeds of her art career were sown when she began private drawing lessons at home with her grammar school teacher, a family boarder who instructed her from the popular Prang drawing books.

In the fall of 1903, O'Keeffe enrolled in Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia, a girls' boarding school. While attending Chatham, she studied art and served as the art editor for the school's first yearbook, submitting several of her humorous pen-and-ink caricatures. After graduating in June, 1905, she studied at the Art Students League in Chicago, winning a $100 prize for her still life, "Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot."

Unable to complete her studies at the Art Students League, O'Keeffe found work in Chicago as a freelance commercial illustrator, drawing lace and embroidery for newspaper advertisements. In 1912, she spent two years as "supervisor of drawing and penmanship" with the public schools in Amarillo, Tex. She explained how she taught her students: "I'd get them to draw a square and put a door in it somewhere--anything to start them thinking about how to divide a space."

In 1916, Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, modern art world impresario, and O'Keeffe's future husband, featured 10 of her charcoal drawings in a three-person exhibition in New York. O'Keeffe initially went to Stieglitz's gallery to protest their inclusion, but ultimately allowed the works to hang.

A retrospective of Stieglitz's photographs opened at the Anderson Galleries in New York in February, 1921. Among the prints first seen publicly were 45 portraits of O'Keeffe. Thousands attended in a two-week period, and she rocketed to prominence. Stieglitz subsequently presented a one-person exhibition of her art at the Anderson Galleries in January, 1923, which included 100 works in a range of styles and media, 90 of them displayed for the first time.

In 1929, O'Keeffe began to break away from the East Coast environment that had provided her primary inspiration for more than 10 years. A trip to northern New Mexico renewed a passion for sky, mountains, and magnificent vistas that she had first encountered when teaching in West Texas 15 years earlier. First in Taos, then at Ghost Ranch, and finally at her adobe home in Abiquiu, she expanded her series subjects to include bones and crosses that are such an integral part of the desert culture of that area. Her bleached white skulls and pelvises of deer, antelope, and cattle float ethereally against the backdrop of landscape and sky in what one critic called a "vision of infinity. …