O'Keeffe, Georgia Totto (1887–1986)

By: John F. Matthews

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: January 15, 2017

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe, artist, daughter of Francis Calixtus and Ida (Totto) O'Keeffe, was born at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887. By 1899 she had two brothers and four sisters. After her family moved to Virginia she attended Chatham Episcopal Institute, Chatham, Virginia, for two years of high school. In 1905 she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1907 she enrolled in the Art Students League, New York City, where she was awarded the Chase Still Life Scholarship. After a brief stint as a commercial artist in Chicago in 1909, she determined to leave art as a career and returned to Virginia. In the summer of 1912 at the University of Virginia she was inspired to return to art with the guidance of the Arthur Dow method of expression, as presented by her teacher, Alon Bement. The Dow method took her away from direct representation and into abstraction and the expression of feeling.

Revitalized, O'Keeffe applied to teach art in the public school system of Amarillo, Texas. From 1912 to 1914 she was supervisor of art in the growing Panhandle town. She came to Texas out of a sense of adventure and romance derived from Western adventure stories. The Texas plains, she said, left her "beside myself. The openness. The dry landscape. The beauty of that wild world." She was somewhat removed socially from her colleagues and in conflict with the education board over expensive textbooks, and the school system terminated her teaching contract in July 1914 over a salary dispute. O'Keeffe went to New York to study with Arthur Dow at Columbia University and in the summers from 1913 to 1916 taught art at the University of Virginia. In the fall of 1915 she taught at Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina. She resigned in February 1916, after being hired to teach at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon in the fall of 1916.

Though her aesthetic brought conflict at Columbia College, O'Keeffe determined to paint in an intensely individual manner. Her sketches in charcoal came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, the proprietor of an art gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Stieglitz, who had shown Picasso and Rodin at his gallery, saw O'Keeffe's charcoals as "the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while." After this positive judgment Georgia O'Keeffe not only became a popular instructor among the West Texas students but also returned to painting in watercolors. At least fifty pieces have been recorded as composed during her second period in Texas. Her painting in Canyon showed a marked move away from representationalism. Though her themes were taken from objects in nature such as the evening star, Palo Duro Canyon, and the sun rising on the plains, O'Keeffe's sense of freedom and love of the plains carried her works into the field of abstract nature expression. Her most famous Texas paintings include the Light Coming on the Plains series, the Evening Star series, and Painting No. 21 (Palo Duro Canyon). Another series, From the Plains, composed in 1919 and again in 1954, embodies her concept of "visual music," in this case the attempted conveyance in painting of the sound of cows lowing for their calves in pens along the railroad tracks.

While living in Canyon, O'Keeffe corresponded actively with Alfred Stieglitz. He gave her her own show in his gallery in 1917. In 1918, during World War I, she requested and received sick leave from West Texas Normal College. She recuperated from her illness at Waring, Texas, with friends and journeyed to New York City in the spring of 1918. She resigned her position in Canyon in the summer of 1918. Alfred Stieglitz became her champion in New York, and O'Keeffe emerged as a leading artist of her time, associated with other modernists such as Arthur Dove, Max Weber, and John Marin. On December 11, 1924, she married Stieglitz, who was nearly twenty-five years her senior and had been married once. She did not assume his last name, and the couple had no children.

O'Keeffe remained faithful to personal abstractions of nature, and, from 1923 until his death in 1946, Stieglitz arranged exhibitions of her work at Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. O'Keeffe spent the summer of 1929 in New Mexico and painted with new inspiration. She bought a studio at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico, in 1940 and a house in Abiquiu in 1946, where she set up residence. Retrospective exhibitions of O'Keeffe include the Brooklyn Museum in 1927, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and 1970, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946, the Worcester Art Museum in 1960, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth in 1966, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1970. O'Keeffe had no firm religious affiliations. She was a member of the National Woman's party. In 1972 she contributed a painting to raise money for the Democratic party. In 1977 President Gerald Ford awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Art Critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote in 1924 that O'Keeffe's work came out of general American life and reflects "a spaciousness of feeling, sweep, tumult, and calm like the spaciousness of the ocean and the Texas plains she loves." Meridel Rubenstein wrote in 1977 that the sparseness and isolation of the Texas plains allowed O'Keeffe to discover "her constant inner sources of inspiration and mode of working." In this she was like Van Gogh and Gauguin, who also needed privacy and the inspiration of a natural environment. Georgia O'Keeffe lived in declining health in Santa Fe for the last two years of her life. She died at St. Vincent Hospital there on March 6, 1986, at the age of ninety-eight. In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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Jan Garden Castro, The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Crown, 1985). Katherine Hoffman, An Enduring Spirit: The Art of Georgia O'Keeffe (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1984). Mary Lynn Kotz, "Georgia O'Keeffe at 90," Art News, December 1977. Laurie Lisle, Portrait of An Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Seaview, 1980). Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Viking, 1976).

  • Visual Arts
  • Painting
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John F. Matthews, “O'Keeffe, Georgia Totto,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/okeeffe-georgia-totto.

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May 1, 1995
January 15, 2017

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