Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

O'KEEFE, GEORGIA (1887-1986)

Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, Georgia O'Keefe was the second child of Francis O'Keefe and Ida Totto O'Keefe. Perched on the prairie, Sun Prairie was a typical nineteenth- century farming community. O'Keefe lived on her family dairy farm until she was twelve, when she went away to school, first to Chatham Academy in Virginia and then to the Chicago Art Institute in 1905 and the New York Art Students League in 1907. The O'Keefe family fortunes declined, and in 1915 she was forced to leave school in New York and take a teaching job in Columbia, South Carolina. While she was there, O'Keefe revised her work, using simple abstract forms and a limited palate. Her goal was to express emotion or emotional states using abstraction.

O'Keefe's first experience of the Great Plains came in 1912, when she took a position as an art educator in the Amarillo public schools. After less than a year she left after battling with the state education commission over textbooks. But her love for the land had been established. In 1916 O'Keefe moved to Canyon, Texas, and became the head of (and the only faculty member in) the art department at West Texas State Normal School. She disliked the small town, but she was inspired by the wide horizons and the overarching sky. The openness of the space changed her work, and she began to paint the infinite variations of light coming onto the Plains, especially at sunrise and sunset. The clouds of dust that arose from the herds of cattle being herded through town gave her new sources of abstract shapes.

The imagery of these paintings in Texas ranged between realistic and abstract forms with allusions to the land. She produced them on whatever paper was available as she wandered the land, inspired by the power and beauty of the Plains. North Texas, she would write in 1919, was the only place she really felt at home.

O'Keefe's mature style was fully developed when she moved back to New York in the summer of 1918. In 1924 she married Alfred Stieglitz, the influential photographer and owner of Gallery 291. Critics at the time discussed O'Keefe's work in terms of feminine forms, but many of the allusions were to landforms. Other critics pointed to evidence of Orientalism and Art Nouveau, the dominant art movements of her youth, and to the influence of her most important teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, whose dictum, that all things must be done beautifully, stayed with her all her life. All these influences are important, but landscape, especially the Plains landscape, was vital to her art.

After 1929 O'Keefe began spending her summers in New Mexico, eventually (in 1949) buying property in the village of Abiquiu, near Santa Fe. Her love of the land is evident in the New Mexico paintings, in which, once again, landforms are dominant. After her death on March 6, 1986, O'Keefe's estate formed the basis of the Georgia O'Keefe Foundation. In 1997 the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, dedicated solely to O'Keefe's legacy, opened in Santa Fe. She is one of a few women artists in the world to be so honored.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Caprock Canyonlands.

Ellen Bradbury Santa Fe, New Mexico

Giboire, C. Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O'Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

O'Keefe, Georgia. Canyon Suite. New York: George Braziller, 1995.

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