Nov

11

The first daughter in a Wisconsin family of dairy famers with seven children, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) had decided she wanted to be an artist by the age of ten. What she did become — what she made herself with the sheer power of passion and grit — was not merely an artist, but an art pioneer celebrated as the Mother of American Modernism.

O’Keeffe pursued her childhood vision with unrelenting focus and dedication, from her early instruction by a local watercolorist to her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to her participation in New York’s Art Students League, where she was mentored by William Merritt Chase. But her journey wasn’t a straight upward trajectory to success. In the autumn of 1908, shortly after winning the Art Students’ League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for an oil painting titled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, she became disillusioned with the art world, believing she’d never be able to set herself apart from the sea of sameness under the mimetic tradition, which had been the basis of her training. She abandoned painting altogether and spent four years as a commercial artist in Chicago, but eventually returned to painting, in large part thanks to the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow’s radical ideas about making art.

In the autumn of 1915, O’Keeffe created a series of charcoal drawings, which captivated photographer Anita Pollitzer. Pollitzer took them to New York to show them to her good friend, the prominent photographer and modern art champion Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz fell in love with the paintings, which he exhibited in his legendary 291 gallery, then fell in love with O’Keeffe. The two, twenty-three years apart in age, began living together in New York in 1918, married in 1924, and remained together until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. Their magnificent love letters are among history’s greatest romantic correspondence.

In 1929, O’Keeffe started spending her summers painting in New Mexico and became intensely interested in the local landscape and culture, which began dominating her art and went on to inspire some of her most famous paintings. She moved there permanently in 1949 and continued working for more than three more decades, even after she suffered macular degeneration, which left her nearly blind.

More than a century after reconstructionist Maria Mitchell became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Keeffe became an Academy Fellow. She received the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, which reconstructionist Adrienne Rich is the only person to date to have declined), as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon an American citizen, one also awarded to reconstructionist Margaret Mead.

O’Keeffe lived to be ninety-eight, sustained by an ethos perhaps best captured in a 1922 New York Sun article that quoted her:

It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.

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