The Early Years

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe (taken at an American Place) , 1944. Arnold Newman.

Beginning in the spring of 1917, Alfred Stieglitz began taking photos of the 29 year-old O'Keeffe in the "291" studio. Stieglitz often had O'Keeffe pose with her paintings as seen here. In the portrait of O'Keeffe wearing a derby hat, she is standing in front of her Blue ii (1917) abstract. Stieglitz especially enjoyed photographing O'Keeffe's hands and these photographs seem to emphasize the creative potential and prowess Stieglitz recognized in O'Keeffe. Over the next seven years, Stieglitz amassed hundreds of portraits of O'Keeffe which he first exhibited in 1923. In March of 1924 both O'Keeffe's paintings and Stieglitz's portraits were exhibited simultaneously at Stieglitz's "American Place" gallery. Ultimately, Stieglitz's portraits of O'Keeffe proved to be a stroke of marketing genius because not only was the public intrigued by his photographs, but they were also captivated by O'Keeffe's work. The public could identify the artist with her work.

Portrait of O'Keeffe in front of Blue ii by Stieglitz.
Blue ii
Blue ii , 1917

The Stigma of Gender

With Stieglitz's photographs and O'Keeffe's own bold style, she quickly became a favorite for the art world critics. Due to Stieglitz's marketing, O'Keeffe's femaleness became inseparable from her paintings. In a 1917 review of O'Keeffe's charcoal abstracts in The Christian Science Monitor , Henry Tyrell wrote that O'Keeffe, "has found expression in delicately veiled symbolism for 'what every woman knows' but what women heretofore have kept to themselves, either instinctively or through a universal conspiracy of silence (10). Likewise, in 1921 Paul Rosenfeld declared, "Her art is gloriously female" ( Dial , December 1921) and the following year asserted, "there is no stroke laid by her brush, whatever it is she may paint, that is not curiously, arrestingly female in quality. Essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures" ( Vanity Fair , October 1922). O'Keeffe herself detested that her artwork was categorized in such a way and she denied that her flower paintings had any sexual implications. Female critics like Marya Mannes also argued against a gendered interpretation of O'Keeffe's work: "Before speaking of O'Keeffe's work, let us once and for all dismiss this talk of 'a woman's painting' and 'a man's painting.' Any good creative thing is neither agressively virile nor aggressively feminine." Nonetheless, O'Keeffe could not escape her sex. Even fellow artists like Arthur Dove, a member of the Stieglitz group, remarked that O'Keeffe was "doing naturally what many of us fellows are trying to do, and failing" (80).

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait , 1930. Alfred Stieglitz

Conquering America

Despite being pigeon-holed as the female painter of her time, O'Keeffe was also characterized by the critics as the quintessential American painter who properly represented America in her artwork. Frances O'Brien declared, "O'Keeffe is America's. It's own exclusive product. It is refreshing to realize that she has never been to Europe. More refreshing is that she has no ambition to go there." O'Brien goes on to say that "In her painting as in herself is the scattered sould of America come into kingdom." In a 1927 discussion about O'Keeffe and French artist Henri Matisse, Lewis Mumford asserted "Miss O'Keeffe is perhaps the most original painter in America today." O'Keeffe's ability to take familiar objects such as the flower, leaves, or animal bones and depict them in such a way that even the lay person could recognize the image in the painting also contributed to her appeal as did her use of bright and virile colors. In 1928 several of her calla-lily paintings sold for $25,000, an unheard of amount for any American painter, let alone a woman.

For more critics commentary click here.

In February of 1938, Life Magazine ran a four page spread about O'Keeffe. Featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, the article credits O'Keeffe's popularity to Alfred Stieglitz: "A notable impresario of artists, [Stieglitz] has helped this one-time schoolteacher to become one of the country's most prosperous and talked-of painters."

Image from Life Magazine
From the February 14, 1938 issue of Life Magazine

In the Bedroom at Abiquiu late 1960s. John Loengard ( Life Magazine). Copyright Time/Warner Inc.

Ironically and despite being defined by her sex, O'Keeffe was able to achieve her status as America's painter because she was female. Both the intrigue Stieglitz created surrounding O'Keeffe and the ongoing debate concerning how to depict American culture enabled O'Keeffe to emerge triumphant. During the 1930's America was under pressure from critics to define its own "art" and culture. Up until that point it was believed that America did not truly have its own distinctive cutlure nor could it claim an artist who was truly painting "America." From O'Keeffe's images to skyscrapers to her paintings of flowers and animal skulls, Georgia O'Keeffe emerged in the late 1920's and throughout the 1930's as America's own. Murdock Pemberton foresaw O'Keeffe's legacy in 1927 when he wrote in the New Yorker "Knowing full well that Time's vote will outweigh ours when it comes to the immortality of Georgia O'Keeffe, we do want to go on record for one thing. O'Keeffe will certainly be looked back upon as one of the milestones" (62-63).

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