From earliest childhood, Georgia O’Keeffe was more sensitive to color and form than most people. Born during a cold Wisconsin autumn, O’Keeffe was kept indoors by her mother through the harsh winter, not allowed outdoors until she was eight or nine months old. Despite her tender age when she first experienced the dazzling brightness of the outdoors, O’Keeffe always attested remembering details about the patchwork quilt on which she was placed during her first adventure in nature.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, curator of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which between April 17 and July 18, 1999, was host to the exhibition entitled “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things,” declares early in her book that bears the title of this exhibition that color was O’Keeffe’s formal language. The scores of outstanding reproductions of her paintings that illustrate this book amply validate Turner’s contention.
The evidence these reproductions offer places O’Keeffe at the top of the list of major American still-life painters. She brought a unique vision to her painting, finding a stark beauty in bleached animal bones, an underlying symmetry in a rural road, a beguiling mystery in a dark door set in an adobe wall, a rhythm in the lights of a New York City skyscraper, a whimsical delight in a floating ladder. O’Keeffe, nevertheless, is best remembered for her pictures of huge flowers that overflow her canvas, flowers whose intensity of color dazzles the eye.
These huge flowers are partly the legacy of a Roman Catholic nun who taught art at the Sacred Heart Convent School near Madison, Wisconsin, which O’Keeffe attended in her early teens. One of her teacher’s assignments was to draw hands. O’Keeffe dutifully reproduced hands in charcoal, but the nun told her that her hands were too small, her lines too dark. From that moment on, O’Keeffe began to draw on a much grander scale, to cram her sketches and paintings with objects rendered almost too large for the paper or canvas on which they were drawn.
A decade later, when O’Keeffe was at Columbia University studying to become an art teacher, she studied art appreciation under Arthur Wesley Dow, whose book, Composition (1899), ran through seven editions and whose 1913 revision was influential in shaping O’Keeffe’s conception of what artists must do. Dow’s chief legacy to O’Keeffe was his deceptively simple statement that artists must fill space in a beautiful way. This statement haunted O’Keeffe. Even in her nineties, when her eyes were failing, O’Keeffe had her nurse read to her from Dow’s book.
To fill space in a beautiful way, O’Keeffe grew increasingly cognizant of both form and color. She had become consciously aware of these necessities during the year when she was a student at a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, high school whose art teacher had her students draw pictures of a simple swamp flower, the jack- in-the-pulpit, which later became the subject of one of O’Keeffe’s most celebrated series of paintings. The jack-in-the-pulpit is a humble form of plant life, yet O’Keeffe, through this early exposure to it in an art class, realized that no object is intrinsically humble: Art can transform anything into something that fills space in a beautiful way, that imbues it with a dignity that many people miss.
O’Keeffe is renowned for her paintings of bleached animal bones. In these bones, stumbled upon in the desert around Amarillo, Texas, where she taught art in the local high school, she observed a unique sheen that caused light to radiate from them. She first gathered animal bones because she had almost no budget to buy art supplies for her high school students. They needed to paint something. She, as their teacher, was responsible for finding things for them to paint. Her weekend treks in the desert around Amarillo and later near Canyon, Texas, where she was head of the art department at West Texas State Normal School, provided her with materials that gave her subject matter for years to come.
It was also during this period that O’Keeffe developed her passion for the southwestern deserts of the United States. This passion was reawakened in 1929 when she spent the summer in Taos, New Mexico, as a guest at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s ranch. O’Keeffe would return to New Mexico alone nearly every summer thereafter, buying a house at Ghost Ranch. Her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, refused to vacation in the desert, spending most of his summers at Lake George with members of his family.
Finally, just months before Stieglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe bought a badly deteriorated house at Abiquiu, some forty-five miles north of Santa Fe. She had the adobe house completely restored and spent her last years there and in the...
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