Georgia O’Keeffe, one of America’s most admired modern painters, was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. At the age of seventeen, she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but because of illness did not return the following year. In 1907 she moved to New York to study at the Art Students League, then in 1908 returned to Chicago, where she worked until 1910 as a freelance commercial artist with two fashion houses. After teaching briefly, she spent the summer of 1912 at the University of Virginia, studying under Alon Bement, who taught principles of composition and introduced her to the theories of Arthur Wesley Dow. After two years of teaching in Amarillo, Texas, she entered Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York City, to study directly under Dow for a year. Dow’s theories reflected the aesthetics of Japanese art as well as the principles of the arts and crafts movement, championed by William Morris. Dow’s manual, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, provided a framework for O’Keeffe’s style, particularly her simplification and isolation of forms within her compositions and her use of bold colors to express the essence of her subjects. This approach endured throughout her career.
In January 1916, while teaching at Columbia College, South Carolina, a friend, Anita Pollitzer, brought O’Keeffe’s abstract charcoal drawings to the attention of the photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited them in the late spring in New York at his Gallery 291. In the meantime, O’Keeffe had accepted a teaching position in West Texas, but by June 1918, she had joined Stieglitz in New York. They married in 1924.
Though O’Keeffe tended to veil her artistic sources, the cropping of her compositions reflects the influence of photography. Her monolithic, magnified forms are often associated with Stieglitz’s work and also that of the photographer Paul Strand, whose closely focused subjects were known by O’Keeffe from exhibitions at Gallery 291.
O’Keeffe began to travel to the American Southwest in 1929, and eventually established a home in New Mexico. In 1934 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased its first O’Keeffe painting, and many major exhibitions and honorary degrees from colleges and universities soon followed. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico. O’Keeffe painted and traveled extensively until her death in 1986.
In A Collection in the Making, Duncan Phillips wrote that “O’Keeffe is a technician of compelling fascination“ and that she “burns with a hard gem-like flame. She can be feminine and dainty, or she can be formal and austere. This makes her daring moments of flaming color and introspection all the more breathtaking.”