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goergia okeeffe
AP Photo
Painter Georgia O'Keeffe in 1968 at age 80.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Painter Famous for Depictions of Flowers, Bones

January 27, 2010
by Haley A. Lovett
Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the most well known American painters of the 20th century. Famous for larger-than-life paintings of flowers and desert imagery, her sharp images, bold colors, and close-up views of objects are reminiscent of modern photographs.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Early Days

Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., on Nov. 15, 1887, one of seven children. Her interest in art began early in life. She spent her early years moving around frequently with her family, setting the tone for the rest of her life, which would involve a great deal of travel between cities.

O’Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, then the Art Students League in New York, and was awarded scholarships for her still-life work in school. After college she moved to Chicago and did commercial artwork, then spent a few years moving between Texas, Charlottesville, V.A., (where her family lived) and New York. O’Keeffe continued to take classes, and also did some art instructing during those years.

O’Keeffe had her first one-woman show on April 3, 1917, at the gallery 291 in New York City.

O'Keeffe's Notable Accomplishments

In 1918, 291 gallery operator and photographer Alfred Stieglitz (who was married at the time) asked O’Keeffe to move in with him in New York. A few years later a series of pictures including a few nudes of O’Keeffe were displayed during an exhibit of Stieglitz’s photographs; The New York Times notes that some later called Stieglitz’s photos of O’Keeffe “the greatest love poem in the history of photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married in 1924, and he continued to be a constant promoter of O’Keeffe’s art, arranging annual showings of her work throughout his life.

O’Keeffe began her career as an abstract painter. According to Britannica, it was perhaps due to Stieglitz’s promotion and misrepresentation of O'Keeffe's abstract work as an expression of her sexuality that she moved toward painting real-world forms.

In 1928 O’Keeffe sold six of her paintings of calla lilies for an unprecedented $25,000. Gale notes, “Though O’Keeffe insisted that there was no symbolism behind her work, art critics continue to speculate about the sexual imagery in such paintings.”

In 1929 she and another artist traveled to Santa Fe and Taos, N.M. In 1931 she showed her first set of paintings that included a close-up depiction of bones in the desert—another famous O’Keeffe style. O’Keeffe then started traveling to New Mexico regularly to paint. During this time she also worked as a commercial artist, and is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown in 1933.

O’Keeffe traveled back and forth from New York to New Mexico for years, until the death of Alfred Stieglitz in 1946, after which she moved permanently to New Mexico.

The Rest of the Story

O’Keeffe kept many of her favorite pieces of work, and during her lifetime she even bought back some of her paintings, which helped keep prices for her work high and made her able to live off of selling her work.

During the 1950s and ’60s O’Keeffe began to reach the level of recognition she has today. She continued to paint and organize exhibitions of her work. O’Keeffe also traveled frequently, going to Mexico, Hawaii, Asia and Europe. She showed a number of retrospectives during this time, but according to PBS O'Keeffe's most important was in 1970 at the Whitney Museum, which solidified her place as a top American painter.

In 1971 she began to lose her vision, and had only peripheral sight, after which she needed assistance to finish her oil paintings. On March 6, 1986, O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe.

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