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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Women and the Art World

Sep 29, 2018 by


Georgia O’Keeffe

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) In our series of interviews about famous women, we need to venture into the world of art. One of the most well-known women in art was Georgia O’Keeffe. When and where was she born?

Georgia O’Keeffe was born on her family’s dairy farm in Prairie Sun, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1887. Her family would live there until 1902, when it relocated to Virginia. A year later, she followed her family there. Although she would move quite frequently during her remaining 83 years, O’Keeffe never returned to Wisconsin.

2) How was she educated and when did she first venture into painting and art?

Initially, O’Keeffe went to school in Sun Prairie. According to O’Keeffe, she had already chosen art as her future career by the time that she turned 10. In 1902, she started high school in Madison, Wisconsin, attending Sacred Heart Academy in that community. When her family moved to Virginia, O’Keeffe asked to stay in Wisconsin. Living with an aunt, O’Keeffe transferred to Madison Central High School. After one year, O’Keefe decided that she wanted to live with her parents, and moved in 1903 to Virginia. 

Hoping to one day go to college, O’Keeffe asked her parents to allow her to attend the Chatham Episcopal Institute, an all girls’ preparatory school. After graduating, O’Keeffe gained admission into the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After losing a year of education to typhoid fever, she began to attend the Art Students League in New York City in 1907. A year later, she had to once again suspend her educational studies because of financial reverses that her parents suffered. 

Instead, she took a position as a commercial artist. In 1912, O’Keeffe began to take classes at the University of Virginia, an institute that she would continue to take classes at over the next few years. Her next educational experience came at Columbia University during the school’s spring and summer sessions in 1916. That fall, she would accept a position at West Texas State Normal College (present-day West Texas A&M University) in Canyon, Texas, and would never again take college classes. 

Image result for Georgia O'Keeffe photo
Ansel Adam’s iconic photo of Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox ANSEL ADAMS

3) At what point, and where, was she first really recognized as a true artist, and accepted by peers?

Actually, O’Keeffe had already earned a fair degree of recognition from the Art World while still taking classes, as in 1908 she had won an award for a painting that has become known over time as Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot. Over the next eight years, she continued to produce works of art, some of which came to the attention of a gallery owner named Alfred Steiglitz. Impressed with her work, in 1916 he displayed a number of her works at his facility. 

Moreover, he provided the financial backing for her to move to New York City to further perfect her craft. During her years in that city, she became acquainted with other artists. They, in turn, came to appreciate her skill as an artist. For the rest of her life, she would continue to enjoy the respect of her fellow artists.

4) Can you briefly summarize her life and career?

For a number of years, O’Keeffe continued to live and work in New York City. She put that time to good use, using the skyline of the city as an inspiration for a number of her works of art. In 1929, however, her career took an abrupt turn when she accompanied a friend on a visit to Taos, New Mexico. 

By all accounts, she immediately fell in love with the Land of Enchantment, and began to use the surroundings there as the basis for her paintings and her charcoal drawings. From that point on, she would spend at least part of the year in New Mexico, before finally deciding to relocate to the state on a permanent basis. 

While she would occasionally create works of art based on other subjects, New Mexico provided the greatest inspiration for her work until her deteriorating health brought her productive working years to an end. 

5) What was her impact on art, the art world, and other women who may have followed her?

O’Keeffe stands as an interesting figure within the Art World. On the one hand, she clearly represents a departure from artists that had gone before her. While a discerning observer can recognize the influence of some of her predecessors, her works stand as unique creations that only she could have produced. But, on the other hand, her ability to create something (to borrow a Latin phrase) sui generis makes her an anomaly. 

Unlike artists like Monet or Picasso, who created specific movements within the Art World, Georgia O’Keeffe did not create something akin to Impressionism. Moreover, she never aspired to become a pioneer for other female artists. Indeed, she pointedly stated on numerous occasions that she considered herself as simply an artist, regardless of sex. 

Clearly, however, she did influence female artists through her example that a woman could establish herself by just simply being herself.   

6) Her legacy: how will she be recognized and revered?

In 1936, Georgia O’Keeffe created a painting of a toxic plant known as the jimsonweed. She decided to change the name slightly, choosing to title the painting Jimson Weed. A striking image that is both realistic and impressionistic, the painting drew a great deal of attention at the time she produced it.

Over the ensuing years, this fascination only grew, to the point that Alice Walton (heiress to the Walmart fortune) bought the painting in 2014 for $44,000,000. That represents the highest price ever paid for a painting produced by a female. This can serve as an appropriate legacy for a truly iconic American artist.

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