Georgia O’Keeffe: Not Just the Best Among Women

“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.” -Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keefe. (Used with permission).

Judy Chicago was definitely a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe. She reserved the last place setting in her art piece, The Dinner Party, for O’Keeffe, whose plate has the most height. As an artist herself, Chicago definitely recognizes and appreciates O’Keeffe’s artistic liberation and originality. She also realizes her influence on feminist artists, saying O’Keeffe’s work was “pivotal in the development of an authentically female iconography.”

O’Keefe was a feminist artist who began expressing herself through her artwork at a very young age. She was born in 1887 and raised on a farm in Wisconsin. Everyone, including relatives and teachers, encouraged her work and with their support she set out to become an artist attending the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League of New York City a year later.

O’Keeffe was very successful as an artist, especially when she worked in a hostile environment dominated by men: male artists, critics, gallery owners, etc. Not everyone was as supportive of her work but she managed to let her artwork speak for itself and proved that one’s sex did not deem one incapable of thriving in the art world. In 1908, she won the William Merritt Chase still life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). After a four year break from painting, O’Keeffe continued her art with charcoal paintings, producing one of her most famous paintings, Drawing XIII, in 1915. Her painting got in the hands of a gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited her work and who also became her husband later in 1924.

Black Iris by Georgia O'Keeffe painted in 1926. (Used with permission).

O’Keeffe is best known for the vulvar forms expressed through her floral imagery. Although she denies that there is any symbolism in her work, many argue that her paintings such as Black Iris and Jack-in-the-Pulpit VI clearly show sexual undertones in her representations of flowers. But still, O’keeffe, for one reason or another, vehemently denied that her work was made to represent female genitalia. People obviously have trouble believing her, though.

Despite critique by many, due to the fact that they believed her work was very vulgar, O’Keeffe still remained successful. She had myriad art exhibits, including many one-woman shows.

O’Keeffe visited New Mexico numerous times in the summer, a place which greatly influenced her work. In a letter to a friend, she once wrote: “It is breathtaking as one rises up over the world one has been living in, looking out at and looks down at it stretching away and away.” She turned this admiration for New Mexico into many landscape paintings, such as these.

Horse's Skull with White Rose by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1931. (Used with permission).

O’Keeffe also felt inspired by “the bones” in New Mexico which “seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable…and knows no kindness with all its beauty,” admiration which she expressed in another letter to a friend. This led to many popular paintings such as Horse’s Skull with White Rose in 1931 and Cow’s Skull on Red in 1936. In 1949, O’Keeffe moved to the place that she got so much inspiration from: New Mexico.

In 1977, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom and then the National Medal of Arts in 1985. O’Keeffe never stopped creating art even though she had to stop painting due to her poor eyesight in the 1970s. Instead, she continued her work using pencils, water color, and clay. She died in 1986 at 98 but her powerful legacy continues on. She, with good reason, was the first woman to get a museum dedicated to her, a single woman artist, in the United States. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1997. The museum shows 1,149 of her works.

The online magazine, Gadfly, has an article on O’Keeffe. The article interestingly describes O’Keeffe as a chameleon “changing hues with each new terrain and each passing decade,” the writer of this article continues to describe O’Keeffe as the, “naive painter, femme fatale, Galatea to Stieglitz’s Pygmalion, feminist icon, desert high priestess; she has played all these roles at one time or another.” And I would have to agree with that.

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