The name of Georgie O’Keeffe evokes imagery filled with New York skyscrapers, desert landscapes, and her quintessential, larger than life flowers. A fantastic artist with mesmerizing work, almost as impressive as the woman herself. An advocate for feminism, an opinionated individual, a passionate lover, a loner, the many faces of George O’Keefe have intrigued artists, historians, and the general public for decades. Her notable work made her gain the title of “Mother of American modernism,” which comes as a bittersweet note to a woman who yearned to become a mother but never did.
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Wisconsin. Faraway from the two places that would become her inspiration: New York and New Mexico. Her parents were dairy farmers of Irish ascendancy. Her name honors her maternal grandfather George Victor Totto, a Hungarian who first came to America in 1848. O’Keefe had six siblings; being the second eldest, she was probably used to help her parents with motherhood tasks. Despite growing in a busy –most likely noisy –household, she had a strong, determined, hermit personality. She knew she wanted to be a painter since she was ten years old when most girls –especially at the time –dream about toys, dolls, and simpler affairs.
Her parents supported such dreams and helped her getting an artistic education. Georgia O’Keefe played a vital role in the development of modern art in the United States. Not only that, she was the first female painter to receive recognition in New York’s art guild in the 1920s. Undoubtedly, Georgia O’Keefe was a pioneer. Her 1932 famous Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 was sold for the astonishing amount of $44,405,000 in a 2014 auction. No other female artist has come nearly close to her.
Her style is defined as she painted to show how nature made her felt, instead of how it looked. Perhaps the honesty of her brushstrokes turned those deserted landscapes and flowers into artwork people would relate to; an exquisite, vivid simplicity of life. As she traveled to New Mexico, she encountered skulls and bones that would be incorporated into her paintings:
‘To me they are as beautiful as anything I know…The bones 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 as enthralling as her professional facet was, so was her personal life. In 1916 she met photographer Alfred Steiglitz who was married at the time. As years passed, their professional relationship -Steiglitz took nude photos of her –turned into a passionate affair leading to Steiglitz’s divorce in 1924. He and O’Keefe married afterward.
Georgia O’Keefe never bore children. Once she was married, she and her husband agreed that motherhood was incompatible with her art. That her entire focus should be directed on her painting, which is precisely what O’Keefe did. One could easily argue her taciturn personality was not suitable for raising children; nonetheless, her biographers claim she did desire to become a mother but never did.
If one reads between the lines, this decision is understandable. When the couple first met, he was already famous –an acclaimed photographer with a prominent gallery in Manhattan. Most importantly, he was already 52 and already had a daughter; Kitty, the source of his inspiration. On the contrary, Georgia O’Keeffe was an unknown artist, and only 28. It would be hard to think Stieglitz would agree to have children at that age; he didn’t feel the need or the eagerness.
Let us remember that when they first met, they did it on a mentor-apprentice basis. He was Georgia’s art patron, and therefore most likely who dictated the relationship terms. O’Keefe knew how vulnerable she was to him from the very beginning.
“I’m getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me,” O’Keeffe writes from Canyon, Texas, on Nov. 4, 1916. “... Having told you so much of me — more than anyone else I know — could anything else follow but that I should want you —”
When they got married, the couple lived with his family, putting extra stress on O’Keeffe’s. Stieglitz’s family intruded on her time to paint. Seems like her devotion did not pay off as her husband had an affair that led her to a deep depression and a hiatus in her professional life. Her continuous breakdowns affected her work, and she secluded herself in New Mexico, where her infatuation with the landscapes bloomed.
Georgia O’Keefe is represented by her two favorite objects to paint: the desert and flowers. We can compare such duality to the woman. The flowers, charged with vivid colors and sexual imagery, depict her love affair with Alfred Stieglitz: a collusion, a chaotic relationship that was both ardent and colorful. The desert represents the odd woman who shunned the company of others and dressed in black. The desert portrays the aridness in her, an emptiness that any frustrated woman could see as her lack of children.
Well after Stieglitz’s death, and once she was an old woman, Georgia O’Keefe hired a 27-year old assistant – John Hamilton -who helped with her pottering and aided in writing her autobiography. When she died, at the age of 98, her family went in shock as O’Keefe left most of her $76 million estate to Hamilton. There was a legal battle over it.
O’Keeffe was too old to presume there was a romantic link between the two of them. But the puzzle can be solved easily. A silent woman, becoming frail by the minute, is in the hands of a young, caring man. Did O’Keefe see Hamilton as the child she never had? Was her gratitude the reason why she inherited him?
No matter how successful, rich, or famous a person is, happiness is elusive if there’s an unfulfilled dream. The desire to have children runs through our veins, with the same strength as our need to breathe. Georgia O’Keeffe had it all, but she wanted a kid, one who would color her dark, morose days. A pioneer, a talented artist, but moreover, Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman, in every sense of the word.
“It's not enough to be nice in life. You've got to have nerve.”
― Georgia O'Keeffe