Georgia O'Keeffe

By Sam Parrott


Georgia O'Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, in rural Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where she grew up. Her parents were Ida (of Hungarian descent) and Francis (of Irish descent) O'Keeffe, and she had 6 siblings, in which she was the second born. She was Catholic and married Alfred Stieglitz, whom she never had children with. She died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. Her legacy was painting.
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I chose this background because it focuses on paintbrushes, the tool of the artist. As Georgia was an incredible painter, and the brushes in the photo do not seem brand new, it represents the career and lifestyle of O'Keeffe. It highlights what she was most into, and the bright colors are not unlike those in her own works and personality.

"Unmindful of what her classmates thought of her appearance, Georgia made friends easily. She impressed them with her artistic skills...she used her good sense of humor to put the other girls at ease. Georgia could also be arrogant at times..." (Berry 25-26)

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Pick 3 Facts

Though she only made it to 98, Georgia's goal was to reach 125 years of age. "She once said, 'When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I'm gone.'" (Berry 105).

The head of the advertising agency for the Dole Pineapple Company flew Georgia to Hawaii in 1938 with the exception that she make two paintings for them to use on their cans. "During her visit, she wanted to stay at the pineapple fields with the Native workers, but the Dole people turned down her request" (Berry 83) due to race and class. Later, she returned with her paintings, but they weren't what the company was looking for, so, after much convincing, O'Keeffe stubbornly agreed to paint the pineapple flower that was shipped from the island.

In 1934, Georgia found Ghost Ranch, a supposedly haunted dude ranch that was out in the New Mexican desert. It was one of her most plentiful periods, as she painted almost every minute there. "During the hottest part of the day, she sometimes lay in the only available shade, beneath her car" (Berry 78-79), and her old Ford Model A served as a nice retreat to the secluded wilderness she left to paint. Georgia ended up buying part of the "resort" and lived there until she died.

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I believe this biography was written about Georgia O'Keeffe because the author perceived her as a large stepping stone in women's involvement in art and society. Even the introductory paragraph, written by Matina S Horner from Radcliffe College, was titled Remember the Ladies, and focused on the topic of why women's biographies are important. The subtitle of this biography is another clue to me thinking this, as it is titled American Women of Acheivement.

In my opinion, Georgia has accomplished many things, besides leaving a lasting legacy on the world of art. Her paintings helped to shape the idea of abstract and modern painting in America. As well as being exceptional paintings and drawings, the artwork of O'Keeffe honed new perspectives for the audience to see, not just a still life of what was in front of her, but instead what she saw when she looked at it. Her stubborn attitude truly paved the road for women's art in her country, and because she denied the harsh criticism of her male counterparts, she aided in the freedom we now have today for female artists.

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O'Keeffe overcame several struggles. The first being sexism, which she couldn't care less about. She wanted "women artists" to just be "artists". Her bigger problems were financial and health problems. In her earlier years, Georgia had to give up a lot for her family. She dropped out of many art colleges to go and aid her fathers failing businesses, and she even became a freelance illustrator to raise money for her family. Some of the things she enjoyed, such as an art school in New York, she had to leave because she lacked funds. She eventually became stable, and continued with multiple teaching jobs and became a full time painter. Around her time teaching, World War II started, and she felt conflicted. She lived in Amarillo, whos landscape inspired her to a large extent, but she was a pacifist, and many of the civilians were supporting patriots. She did leave, and left behind teachers unsupportive of her methods and rowdy citizens. Her other problem set was health. She became ill a few times, and in those times she stopped painting to recover. She even had a nervous breakdown before attempting to paint a mural for Radio City, and had to be hospitalized. She was there from Feb. 1 to Mar. 25 in 1933. The biography's author state that "the stress of planning her doomed mural for Radio City Music Hall surely contributed to her breakdown, but much of her mental torment stemmed from her strained relationship with Stieglitz" (Berry 75).


A strong influence in Georgia's life was her husband and mentor, Alfred Steiglitz. Though he was around 30 years older and was despised by her at first, he became important in her art. Their first meeting took place when he displayed some of her pieces in his art gallery, 291, without her permission. She flew up to the gallery in New York and protested, but when she saw her art placed so finely in 291, she became a little less furious with him. Later the two ended up becoming good friends, as well as spouses. Alfred was a photographer, and wished for women's art to be taken more seriously, and he "believed the female experience of life was fundamentally different than that of the male. He felt these differences left women freer of crippling societal inhibitions and enabled female artists to express vividly personal visions" (Berry 19). He helped with the development of Georgia's career by showing her art to the public and supporting the continuation of it. Also, Steiglitz often found Georgia truly enchanting, and used her as a subject for much of his photography.


O'Keeffe won many awards in her long lifetime. In 1949, Georgia was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an American excellence program, and in 1970 they gave her a Gold Medal of Painting. Georgia completed her autobiography in 1976, and in 1977, President Gerald Ford awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the nations highest honor given to a civilian by the government. Finally, in 1985, Ronald Reagan gave her the National Medal of Arts. Her painting, Jimson Weed, broke the record on the auction for most expensive painting by a woman (Over 4.4 million dollars). Aside from that, Georgia opened two large art shows at the Worcester Art Museum and New York's Whitney Museum.


In her days, Georgia often wandered the New Mexican deserts, walking, driving, or horse back riding. She "had taken great interest in the dry, bleached animal bones she found scattered across the desert. She gathered some up..." (Berry 70) and take them home to paint, draw, or just look at. She also liked traveling, and in 1959, she traveled through North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.


For a symbol that may represent O'Keeffe, I choose a tree, because like her, they are strong and stubborn and rooted, yet beautiful and serene. Even if she hadn't taken an interest in painting trees, one could still relate her back to the sturdy plant. She liked to be within the wilderness, in a solitude where she could create more of her "seeds". She didn't care much for competition, and often denied statements that referred to her as a different subject, instead of as an equal. Her personality was much like the leaves of a Summer or Autumn oak, colorful and full, and her mind the roots, as she always absorbed new knowledge of her surroundings. Her hands are soft and gentle on the canvas, but rough and powerful when need be, much like the bark protected trunk. O'Keeffe also, like a tree, acted on her own ideas.

" [Georgia's] colleagues did not approve of [her] nontraditional methods. Many considered her eccentric and unsociable because she prefered to board at the Magnolia Motel rather than at the boardinghouse with the other teachers." (Berry 36)

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Friend or Foe?

I think me and Georgia would be friends rather than foes, because we share a similar mindset. When she published her biography, a reviewer "commented that the book's tone was both 'casual and regal,' a description that seemed equally appropriate for the author herself" (Berry 103), and I am able to relate to this description as well. Neither of us particularly care what other people think of our actions, and can be stubborn. We also share a love for art, peaceful solitude, meaning being alone but not lonely, and nature. I, too, like picking up skulls found along my journeys, and have a few at home. Georgia was also a very original and independent person, which I inspire to be, so I believe if our times lined up she might've become a very good friend of mine. Lastly, I find some of her quotes and actions quite funny, such as when she talked about her paintings. "[The] painting was interpreted by some viewers as a symbolic representation of the opposing forces of life and death, even of O'Keeffe's triumph over her recent illness. O'Keeffe, leery of any psychological analysis of her work, insisted that in the case of the Ram's Head, the painting's elements 'just sort of grew together.'".

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Georgia O'Keeffe reminds me of the character Eliza Doolittle from "Pygmalion", or its musical version "My Fair Lady". I think this because Eliza is a stubborn women who worked hard for her goals, but also had a little fun while doing it. Georgia is similar as she painted, which she loved, but strived for something more. The reason for both of them was equality, and to show those who were against the ladies being privileged women that they could be just as smart and talented as them. Also, they both ended up marrying their mentors. Eliza and O'Keefe were also both hot headed and regal, yet were usually nice to others around them. In their ends, the two ladies accomplished the seemingly impossible and made a name for themselves, all because they were told they wouldn't be able to do it. "The entire O'Keeffe family saw that Georgia had a talent for art. Although her mother encouraged her, no one believed that Georgia could make her living as a painter. At that time, few young women ever contemplated such thing. Georgia, however, had other ideas. While playing with a friend one day, the two girls began talking about the future. Twelve-year old Georgia surprised her friend-and herself-when she announced that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up". (Berry 23)
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Altruist or Egotist?

I feel Georgia O'Keeffe is an altruist because, although she prefered to be in her remote desert ranch with only a few people, she was a pacifist and enjoyed meeting new people. In her school days, she was popular, though she didn't care and was often bossy. Most people that met her said she was kind but strong willed.
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Georgia was likable, no matter how tough she might have seemed. At Taos, a famous art community, she made friends with people she found fascinating. She even made friends with young Ansel Adams there, who later became one of the best known wildlife photographers. She was also acquainted with some of her art teachers, such as Elizabeth May Willis and Alon Bement, all of who helped her along with her career and education of the arts. After her husband died "O'Keeffe formed a rather unlikely attachment to a pair of Chinese chow pups a friend had given her. These fluffy, lionlike dogs possessed bright blue tongues and vicious tempers. O'Keeffe enjoyed their ferocity and their exotic appearance" (Berry 93).
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When Georgia was young, she attended four different schools, and three colleges. Two of the schools she attended were boarding schools, which she enjoyed, since the art programs were highly endorsed. Her interest for art started as a young child though, when she would wander her family's 440 acres. Even as a sibling of five, Georgia prefered to be alone in the fields, drawing, and "one of her first drawings was a pencil sketch of a man bending over. She labored over the picture for quite a while but could not make the man's legs bend correctly at both the hips and knees. When she turned the paper upside down, however, she found it looked fine..." (Barry 21). Later she recalled that it gave her a feeling of achievement, even if it didn't turn out how she expected. Her family saw her talent and a few years after hired an art instructor for the girls of the family.