Readers of Laurie Lisle’s Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe (1980) will not have their perception of O’Keeffe the woman altered much by Roxana Robinson’s biography. Their perception of her as an artist, however, will certainly be made deeper and broader; Robinson, an art historian and novelist, is superb in placing O’Keeffe within a historical context artistically as well as in discussing her development as an artist. The letters previously inaccessible to biographers of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz reveal disappointingly little that is new about O’Keeffe. Perhaps because Stieglitz wrote so many more than she when they were apart, as they often were after their first ten years together, the letters he wrote to her (sometimes six a day) reveal a man with a childlike dependence upon the indomitable woman he loved.
Robinson’s novelistic eye for detail is exercised well throughout the study, as is her ability to convey a vivid sense of place. Whereas in fiction conflict is necessary to move a story forward intensely and believably, however, in biography it is only necessary if it is verifiably true and thus germane. That there were surprisingly few external conflicts in O’Keeffe’s life, most of them being internal and kept private by a characteristically private woman, poses a problem for an author used to developing her narrative from and around conflict. Robinson’s apparent solution to this problem manifests itself as a revisionary feminist tendentiousness, insisting as she does that O’Keeffe suffered oppression within a patriarchal society; such a gender-related oppression, it is important to note, O’Keeffe herself never acknowledged as a problem, debilitating or otherwise. In fact, Robinson exhibits a general unwillingness to allow O’Keeffe—as Lisle does—her androgynous and apolitical independence. If anyone or anything got between her and her art, including Stieglitz, she simply moved to another location. Indeed, O’Keeffe was not being gender specific, let alone issuing what Robinson calls a “devastating indictment of a patriarchal system,” when she wrote of her conscious break with tradition and precepts in order to be original:I grew up pretty much as everybody else grows up and one day seven years ago [when she was twenty-eight] found myself saying to myself—I can’t live where I want to—I can’t go where I want to—I can’t do what I want to—I can’t even say what I want to—School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not at least to paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted.
Here she compares herself with everybody else,” not only with women; what she describes as her prebreakthrough condition could easily have been said by men and women alike during an era when censorship of artists was common and prohibition related to far more than alcohol consumption.
In her dedication of this study to her daughter, Robinson calls this a “book about a daughter,” and throughout, O’Keeffe’s character is portrayed as having derived more from her mother than from her father. The latter, Frank O’Keeffe, was a fun-loving but hard-working man who, for the first sixteen years of Georgia’s life, provided well for his wife and seven children by farming in Wisconsin; after moving his family to Virginia in 1903, however, when Georgia was sixteen, he encountered one financial hardship after another and was often forced to leave his family for long periods to earn a living. Neither his presence nor influence in Georgia’s life is sensed much in this biography Indeed, after the perfunctory exposition of how his precursors arrived in America and settled in Wisconsin from Cork, Ireland, and of how he grew and prospered, Frank O’Keeffe becomes wraithlike in this narrative, his most notable distinctions being that he built a couple of odd houses for himself and his family and that he married Ida Totto, daughter of an exiled Hungarian nobleman who left his wife and six children to return to Hungary when Ida was twelve. Robinson implies that a life of farming in the Midwest was too strenuous for George Totto, as it “is very unlikely that he had ever set his noble hand to a plow.”
Ida’s mother, Isabella, was “strong-willed” the flourishes decorating the first-person singular “I” in one of her diary entries indicating, Robinson says, autonomy and independence.” She and her sister, Jennie Wyckoff, “chose matrimony as careers” because “they had few other options,” and while Isabella remained in Wisconsin after marrying George Totto, her sister traveled the overland wagon route to California with her husband in search of gold. Several times in her narrative, when discussing O’Keeffe’s wanderlust, Robinson alludes back to “Aunt Jennie’s” courageous journey through America’s frontier wilderness, when O’Keeffe herself identified with her father and his travels: “I think that deep down I am like my father,” she said. “When he wanted to see the country, he just got up and went.” In any case, Ida’s mother had taught her and her sisters “to value themselves as individuals and women, not merely as wives,” Robinson says. Thus, because Ida “had a strong sense of a woman’s capabilities and a confidence in her own strength” as well as “a rational, intelligent sense of herself,” when Frank O’Keeffe proposed marriage to her, the reader is told, “she pondered the matter with great deliberation, rationally weighing the advantages and disadvantages. Her attitude was a far cry from the prevailing sensibility, which encouraged a young woman to view marriage as the only possible happy ending to her life.”
With much more space and time given to the delineation and implicit praise of O’Keeffe’s female precursors in this narrative, therefore, it should come as no surprise to readers when Robinson asserts that...
(The entire section is 2429 words.)