Who Was Georgia O’Keeffe?
In February 1951, Georgia O’Keeffe and three friends got in a car and drove from the United States to Mexico. At the time, Georgia was sixty--three years old, but she loved to travel, and a long drive through the beautiful landscapes of Mexico sounded like a fantastic adventure. While she was in Mexico, Georgia would visit her friend Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican painter. Frida was at home in Mexico City, recovering after a long stay in the hospital.
The two women had met twenty years before, in 1931. At that time, Georgia was forty--four years old and already a world--famous artist. Frida was just twenty--four years old and hoped she might one day become as famous and successful as Georgia. Even though there was a twenty--year age difference between them, the two women struck up a close and lasting friendship. They had a lot in common: Both had quite unique styles of painting, they were each married to men who were powerful in the art world, and they both dressed uniquely to express their individuality.
Throughout their friendship, Frida looked up to Georgia because Georgia was truly one of a kind in the art world. She had blazed a trail in a field dominated by men and had a career that inspired other women artists. Georgia painted what she wanted to paint, dressed the way she wanted to dress, and lived the way she wanted to live—-independently. Georgia had not only inspired Frida, she also had inspired—-and continues to inspire—-female artists around the world. Chapter 1: Farm Girl
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her father was Francis “Frank” O’Keeffe. He was a farmer whose family had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Georgia’s mother was Ida Totto. Her family had come to the United States from Hungary. Ida was a strong, bright woman who had hoped to be a doctor. But when she married Frank, she left school to help with the family farm. Even though Ida had given up her own education, she made sure her daughters as well as her sons were educated. And she taught them to be strong and independent.
Georgia was the first girl born to Frank and Ida and the second child of seven. She had an older brother, a younger brother, and four younger sisters. It was normal for farmers to have large families. They needed lots of hands to help with the farm work.
The O’Keeffes’ farm was a dairy farm. They had many cows, but they also grew corn, oats, and hay. Georgia’s brothers helped their father with the animals and the crops on the farm. Georgia and her sisters helped their mother look after the house, cook, clean, and tend to the family’s vegetable garden.
Even though there was a lot of work to do on the farm, Georgia’s mother made sure that Georgia and her siblings had the opportunity to learn. Mrs. O’Keeffe read to her children all the time. She read them adventure stories and tales about cowboys and the Wild West. Georgia was fascinated. She imagined what it might be like to live out on the prairies and deserts in the western United States.
Georgia’s mother not only wanted her daughters to get an education, she also wanted them to have the chance to work and have a career. She hoped Georgia and her sisters would have opportunities to be more than just farmers’ wives. So when Georgia was eleven years old, her mother signed up Georgia and two of her sisters to take art lessons. Georgia loved the classes and showed a talent for both drawing and painting.
Georgia spent a lot of time on her own on the farm. The two--hundred--acre property gave her a chance for privacy and solitude. Later in her life, Georgia would say, “I don’t take easily to being with people.” The trees, animals, and wide--open sky kept her company. Georgia would take her pencil and sketch pad with her and draw the things she saw—-raindrops, flowers in the field, leaves on the trees, birds in the sky, and animals in the pastures. The shapes and patterns of these things stood out to her. Georgia tried hard to capture them on paper.
In 1901, just before she was fourteen, Georgia was sent to a Catholic boarding school outside Madison, Wisconsin. Madison was about thirteen miles away from the O’Keeffe farm. The school was just for girls, and it was run by nuns. The rules at the school were strict, but Georgia didn’t mind. She studied hard and won awards in several classes, including a gold pin for drawing. On Sundays at the school, the girls had to dress entirely in black. Most of them didn’t like having to wear plain, all--black clothing. But Georgia felt comfortable dressed so simply. It was a look that she used for much of the rest of her life.
The next year, Georgia and her older brother, Francis, were sent to a big public high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they lived with their aunt Lola. In high school, Georgia wasn’t really interested in many of her classes—-except her art classes. One day her art teacher brought a flower called a jack-in--the--pulpit into class. The teacher pointed out the strange shapes and the different shades of color on the flower. Georgia had seen a jack--in--the-pulpit before, but it was the first time she thought of really looking at it closely and studying its unique features. While Georgia didn’t think much of the art teacher, she later said, “She started me looking at things—-looking very carefully at details.”
During the winter of the year she was in Milwaukee, Georgia’s parents announced they were moving to Virginia. Some of Georgia’s uncles had died of tuberculosis, a disease that affects the lungs. Georgia’s father was worried that the cold winters in Wisconsin might mean he, too, would come down with the illness. So in the fall of 1902, the O’Keeffes sold their dairy farm and headed to Williamsburg, Virginia. Georgia and most of her siblings joined their parents in early summer of 1903, at the end of their school terms.
Once they were settled in Virginia, Georgia’s parents enrolled her at Chatham Episcopal Institute, a school for girls. Strict rules were enforced at the school, and Georgia and her classmates were there to learn how to be polite and well--mannered young women. But Georgia wanted more than that, and she rebelled against the school’s harsh rules. She often got into trouble, and her classmates loved her mischief making.
During her two years at Chatham, Georgia focused mostly on her art classes. She was so talented that the art teacher, Elizabeth Mae Willis, gave Georgia her own table in the studio. She even gave her permission to work there by herself in the evenings. On graduation day in June 1905, the other girls talked about going to dances, finding husbands, and getting married. Georgia announced, “I am going to live a different life from the rest of you girls.” She didn’t want to settle down and do what was expected of her. Georgia was prepared to do whatever it took to become an artist. Chapter 2: Art School
Determined to start living her dream of becoming an artist, Georgia moved to Chicago after graduating from Chatham in 1905. There she enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the best art colleges in the country. Georgia was only seventeen years old.
More and more young women were entering college at this time. But it was still unusual for a young woman to go to art school. Especially when the students were expected to draw nude models. But Georgia’s mother completely supported her daughter’s decision, and her teacher at Chatham, Mrs. Willis, had encouraged Georgia to pursue her dream.
At the Art Institute, Georgia learned basic art skills. The classes were based on traditional courses that were taught in Europe at that time. The students often copied plaster casts of antique statues. They followed instructions on how to properly compose a painting based on geometric shapes and principles.
Georgia found some of her classes a bit boring. However, she did like the class taught by John Vanderpoel on how to draw the human figure. Vanderpoel often drew as he lectured the students. He would make big, bold strokes with black and white crayons on large sheets of tan paper. Later in life, Georgia said that John Vanderpoel was “one of the few real teachers I have known.” By the end of her first year at the Art Institute, Georgia was ranked first in her class of twenty--nine women.
Georgia went home to Williamsburg for the summer. During that time, she came down with typhoid fever, a serious disease that causes high fever, headaches, stomach pain, and weakness. Georgia was ill all summer, and her long hair fell out because of the high fever she had. When September came and it was time to go back to school, Georgia was still not well enough to return. She spent that winter getting better and painting as much as she could.
By the spring of 1907, Georgia had recovered. She thought that she might teach instead of returning to school. But she knew that if she really wanted to be an artist, she should continue her studies. However, instead of returning to the Art Institute, she applied to the Art Students League in New York City. It was where Elizabeth Mae Willis, her teacher at Chatham, had gone to school. Maybe Georgia could follow in her footsteps.
In September 1907, Georgia boarded a train and traveled to New York City. She had experienced life in Milwaukee and Chicago, but New York City was different. It was much busier, more crowded, and more exciting than the cities in the Midwest.
Georgia was thrilled to be in New York City, and she enjoyed her classes at the Art Students League. She and her classmates painted a lot of portraits and still lifes. (A still life is a drawing or painting of something—-like a vase or an apple—-that cannot move.) One of America’s most famous artists at the time, William Merritt Chase, taught at the Art Students League. He was a very showy man and dressed to draw attention to himself. He taught the students how to use strong, contrasting colors and bold brush strokes as they painted. It was unlike anything Georgia had ever done before. She loved her classes with William Merritt Chase.
Although Georgia was a dedicated student, she was still mischievous. She often ate the fruit that had been used for the still-life compositions. And sometimes she brought in street musicians and got her classmates to dance in the studios.
One day during the winter, one of Georgia’s classmates suggested they visit an art gallery downtown. The name of the gallery was “291,” and the current show was drawings by a famous French artist named Auguste Rodin. The gallery was owned by Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia was not impressed by Rodin’s drawings. And she wasn’t impressed by Alfred Stieglitz, either, who argued with some of the students. Little did Georgia know that that trip to 291 would change the course of her life.
At the end of the school year, Georgia won a top prize for one of her still-life paintings. It was titled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot. She also won a scholarship to study at Amitola, the Art Students League summer school on Lake George in upstate New York. It was the first time she would paint outside of the studio.
When Georgia returned home to Virginia after her time at Amitola, she discovered that her parents were having financial troubles. There was no way they could pay for her to go back to the Art Students League in the fall. Georgia was upset and sad to give up her dream of becoming an artist, but she understood her family’s situation. So in 1908, just before her twenty--first birthday, Georgia put away her brushes and paints and moved to Chicago, where she got a job as a commercial artist.
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