Huge close-ups of flowers? Does that ring any bells? Yes, we’re indeed talking about Georgia O’Keeffe – one of the key figures in the American Modernist Movement over the course of the 20th Century. Inspired by her love for photography and America’s wildly versatile landscapes, Georgia O’Keeffe produces pieces that border on abstraction and celebrate the American wilderness. KAZoART is taking a look back on this iconic Precisionist painter who represents a true staple of American art. 

How Georgia O’Keeffe Came to Be 

Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and died in 1986 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe was an American modernist painter. 

Photo-portrait de Georgia O'Keeffe réalisé par Alfred Stieglitz, 1918
Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Unlike many American painters, she was not trained in Europe but in the United States. By doing so, she wanted to emancipate herself from European art

In 1905, she enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. She took classes by acclaimed artist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), an American painter and activist who was part of the Impressionist movement. She then followed that up with a career as an art professor in Texas then Columbia, South Carolina. 

Through her works, she seeks a style of art that has a truly American identity in order to free herself from European artistic influences.

Easter Sunrise, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953
Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1935
Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1935

What’s more, her artistic practice happens to somewhat follow in the footsteps of the Hudson River School, the very first American movement founded by painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848). The painters of this movement depicted the American frontier with a patriotic spirit and a sense of Manifest Destiny.

Black Mesa Landscape Out Back of Marie’s II, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1930
Black Mesa Landscape Out Back of Marie’s II, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1930

Much like her contemporary Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe became a leading figure in the feminist movement. She was the first woman artist to join MoMA, shortly after its opening in 1929.

3 Things to Know about Georgia O’Keeffe

1. Her Romantic Relationship with Photographer Alfred Stieglitz

In 1916, a friend of Georgia’s, photographer Anita Pollitzer, took some of her drawings with her to New York. Upon arrival, she entrusted them to a fashionable and trendy New York gallery. 

It was Gallery 291, owned by avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Stieglitz was a promoter of modern European and American avant-garde art. In particular, he promoted photography in order for it to be more widely recognized as an art form in its own right!

Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibition, 291 Gallery, Photographie de Alfred Stieglitz, 1917
Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition, 291 Gallery, Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Upon receiving the drawings, Stieglitz was instantly seduced and organized a personal exhibition for her, without her knowledge. The two artists finally met that very same year. Georgia was 29 years old, and the photographer 52. 

Stieglitz started off as her art dealer, before the young Wisconsin artist became his muse, appearing in many of his photographs, before eventually becoming his lover. Georgia moved to New York in 1918 and later married Stieglitz in 1924. 

Georgia O'Keffe et Alfred Stieglitz, 1936 ©Archive Albuquerque journal
Georgia O’Keffe and Alfred Stieglitz, 1936 ©Archive Albuquerque journal

Stieglitz made over 350 portraits of Georgia throughout his career. In addition, their love affair allowed Georgia to meet other modernist and precision artists, such as Charles Demuth, who greatly influenced her artistic career.

Precisionism emerged in the early 1920s in the United States and was inspired by Cubism and Futurism. Precisionist artists presented photographic views and were interested in the various large scale buildings and skyscrapers that were being constructed at the time.

The New York skyscrapers that her husband photographed inspired her to paint, for which she created more photographic compositions. In short, she is considered to be without a doubt one of the major figures of the Precisionism movement!

Alfred Stieglitz, From My Window at the Shelton, 1931
Alfred Stieglitz, From My Window at the Shelton, 1931
Georgia O’Keeffe, Shelton with Sunspots, 1926
Georgia O’Keeffe, Shelton with Sunspots, 1926

Stieglitz allowed Georgia to garner a very strong reputation. Indeed, he exhibited her works every year in his gallery. They were presented alongside renowned artists such as Picasso and Duchamp

The couple admired one another very much and their inseparable works almost came together to create one singular work of art in and of itself!

Artists inspired by New York on KAZoART

2. New Mexico – a Major Focal Point for her Work

Georgia O’Keeffe was first recognized as a model for her husband’s photographs, before being recognized as an artist. But Georgia wanted to be independent as a woman and as an artist. She therefore wished to emancipate herself and find her own way, her own freedom!

It’s for that very reason that she decided to move by herself to New Mexico, a region of the United States she had completely fallen in love with. Although the couple kept in touch, their intimate and artistic fusion gradually drifts apart.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Hills with Cedar, 1941-1942
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Hills with Cedar, 1941-1942

As you can probably tell, Georgia O’Keeffe has a very intimate connection to her home country of the United States. The modernist artist has a deep interest in American nature, its landscapes, plants and wildlife.

Throughout her career, her works remain marked by Precisionism and always present more of a photographic influence

Georgia O’Keeffe, White and Brown Cliffs, 1965
Georgia O’Keeffe, White and Brown Cliffs, 1965
Georgia O’Keeffe, Forbidding Canyon, Glen Canyon, polaroid photography, 1964
Georgia O’Keeffe, Forbidding Canyon, Glen Canyon, polaroid photography, 1964

Absolutely infatuated with her country, the artist is driven by the desire to create a distinctly American art form, one that breaks away from all styles, themes and practices inspired by European art and its artists. 

Cow's Skull - Red, White, and Blue, 1931
Georgia O’Keeffe, Cow’s Skull – Red, White, and Blue, 1931 

Her patriotic inspiration leads her to create works that celebrate the symbols of America. Local flowers, wild animal carcasses, canyons and barren deserts typical ones relating to the region of New Mexico, define her work!

Georgia explains

“It’s paramount to feel America, to live America, to love America, before you get to work […], I think I’ve achieved something pretty unique in my time and I’m one of the few people who has given my country a voice of its own” 

Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1970

3. Her Floral Creations that Border on Abstraction

Georgia O’Keeffe is especially well known for her unique depictions of flowers!

Her floral illustrations break with the European tradition of still life. Indeed, the artist represents in quite a monumental way, through deep close-up illustrations of all kinds of flowers such as poppies, camellia, sunflowers, ipomea, iris, arum, orchids, lily…

Georgia O’Keeffe, White Iris, 1930
Georgia O’Keeffe, White Iris, 1930

In her words…

“When you hold a flower in your hand and really look at it, it becomes your world for a moment. I wanted to offer that world to someone else.“

Georgia O’Keeffe

In some paintings, the close-ups are so close that the paintings border on abstraction. The viewer needs time to observe to understand that what they are looking at is a flower.

This specific way of illustrating said flowers in a very close-up way is also a result of the influence that photography has in her artistic practices. The artist is inspired by the “Blow Up” effect used in photography; this technique consists of enlarging an image

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Thus, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers do not resemble any flower that we are used to seeing in paintings, like one seen in a still life for example. In other words, the artist allows us to see nothing but the flower – which occupies the entirety of the canvas.

As you can imagine, when these huge canvases of flowers were first showcased to the public, they shocked, appalled and perplexed more than a few critics! Presented with these works, art critics immediately made a formal and very obvious analogy. Through her paintings, they saw nothing but a purely erotic depiction of female anatomy.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Série White and Blue Flower Shapes, 1919

However, Georgia O’Keeffe has always denied this interpretation, and explained that her intention was not to create works that would allude to female sexuality. She was greatly offended by this erotic interpretation. 

However to this day, many critics and art lovers alike continue to interpret her work in this way. Nevertheless, if you’re into that kind of thing, her paintings are a real treasure trove for all the Freudians out there!

Floral works on KAZoART