Georgia O’Keeffe is often called the “mother of American modernism” and she decidedly deserves that title. Born in 1887, she is famous for her paintings of flowers and her New Mexico inspired landscapes and skulls against dark desert skies.
To me, the most inspiring thing about her is that even after she became almost blind in the 1980s from macular degeneration she continued to paint with the help of several assistants.
That was not the first time a sickness had affected her.
As a young art student, excelling among her peers at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was stricken with typhoid fever in 1906 and had to take a year off from college.
She recuperated enough to return to art school in New York City, but in 1908 O’Keeffe left college again to come to the aid of her parents in Virginia — her mother a victim of tuberculosis, her father in the midst of bankruptcy.
With no money for art school, she found work in Chicago as a commercial artist. Finally she resumed her art studies at the University of Virginia, which led her to jobs teaching art in Texas, and later South Carolina.
By 1918 O’Keeffe was exhibiting in galleries in New York, and falling into a passionate affair with Alfred Stieglitz, an influential photographer and gallery promoter, whom she eventually married.
But it wasn’t long before O’Keeffe was hit with yet another reason to grieve when her husband had an affair with a young pupil. She stayed with him, and was still by his side in 1946 when he died of a stroke.
With all her setbacks in life O’Keeffe could have chosen to give up art forever.
She could have allowed what life had dealt her to defeat her.
Instead she was persistent, creating timeless pieces that reflected the beauty she continued to see in the world around her.
From tiny flowers to an old cow skull in the desert, she captured the wonderment that could come out of the most unlikely objects.
Perhaps it was the hardship of her life that allowed her to see the beauty in what ordinary people would turn away from.
Georgia O’Keeffe paintings are pleasantly peaceful, despite some of them having a subject so reminiscent of death.
This one, “Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue” is one of my favorites. The bold colors somehow manage to be subtle and not overshadow the focus point of the skull.
To show an example of how diverse her art and skill was, here is the painting that made me fall in love with her artistry.
This abstract “Series 1, No.1” hung over my childhood dining table.
The play with colors and movement allows your imagination to wander in the clouds she has represented.
Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long, full life, passing away in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the age of 98 on March 6, 1986.
Eleven years later, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe, preserving thousands of her artworks and exhibiting new selections throughout the year to visitors from all over the globe. The museum also manages and provides tours of O’Keeffe’s home and studio on the Chama River, which is north of Santa Fe, about an hour’s drive.
O’Keeffe’s timeless images continue to captivate viewers through her best-selling art prints, books, and exhibitions. The 2009 movie about her life with Alfred Stieglitz was nominated for three Golden Globes and 25 other awards.
In 2014, her painting, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1” sold for $44.4 million, setting a record for the highest price paid at auction for a work by a female artist.
Watch this wonderful BBC documentary from 2016: “Georgia O’Keeffe: By Myself”
She introduced modernism to America despite the hardships she faced in life. And that is something that can inspire us all.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
– Georgia O’Keeffe