Midpoint Series: Kelley Hess on Georgia O’Keeffe

This guest post from Kelley Hess is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

Georgia O’Keeffe, born November 15, 1887, was an American painter famous for her large close-ups of flowers, and sweeping city-, land-, and skyscapes. I was introduced to her paintings at a young age by my mom. In the intervening 20-odd years, life has taken me to a number of places that were also important in her life. But it wasn’t until this last year that I made the pilgrimage to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and gained an even greater appreciation for her longevity and for the iconography of her work.

O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. (I received my doctorate from the University of Wisconsin!) Her talent was recognized at a young age, and after high school she studied the then-current style of imitative realism at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Arts Students League in New York. But she stopped making art in 1908, saying that she could never achieve distinction working within that tradition.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe at the University of Virginia, July 1915 (photographed by Rufus W. Holsinger).

Her interest was rekindled four years later when she was introduced to Arthur Dow, who encouraged the harmonious use of line, color, and shading to express the artist’s personal ideas and feelings. With these theories in mind, O’Keeffe began to develop her own personal style.

Her work caught the eye of an internationally known photographer named Alfred Stieglitz, who showed her work at his gallery in New York City, 291 — originally without her knowledge or permission. Nonetheless they became close and she worked both in NYC and at his family’s summer home in Lake George, NY.  (I went to college in upstate NY!) Stieglitz arranged the sale of six of her calla lily paintings for $25,000 USD which was the largest sum ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist back in 1928!

O’Keeffe drew landscapes, cityscapes, and became famous for her detailed close-ups of flowers which spanned huge canvases. Her innovative study of nature came before photography’s technique of close-ups, use of colored film, or large blow-ups. In 1929, O’Keeffe made her first trip to New Mexico which became a great subject of her work.  (I was a summer student in NM!) She fell in love with the landscape and made annual trips until she moved there permanently in 1949. Her work from NM includes some of my personal favorites–juxtapositions of wildflowers with bones bleached white from the desert sun, against dramatic desert landscapes.

O’Keeffe also traveled a lot — to the Far East, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe — in a time before air travel was common, and she captured this new perspective on the world in her last two series of paintings including “It was Blue and Green” and “Sky Above Clouds.” The latter culminated in a mural, completed in 1965, spanning 24 feet in length — remarkable for an artist that was nearly 80 years old!

In January 1977, O’Keeffe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to an American citizen, by President Gerald Ford. In 1985, she awarded the National Medal of Arts: one of six women to receive the award (out of 12 honorees–not bad female representation back then).

She painted on despite failing eyesight due to macular degeneration, which eventually left her with only some peripheral vision. She lived on until the impressive age of 98, leaving behind over 900 paintings. Her ashes were scattered in New Mexico.

Georgia O’Keeffe is further immortalized by the discovery of an archosaur fossil that came from rock quarried near her home at Ghost Ranch. The species was named Effigia okeeffeae (“O’Keeffe’s Ghost”) in January 2006.  How cool is that!?!

— Kelley Hess

Kelley is a SARChI SKA Postdoctoral Fellow in Multiwavelength Astronomy at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. When she’s not uncovering the secrets of galaxy evolution, she races bikes and runs marathons. In October she’ll be competing in her first Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. You can follow her travel, athletic, and astronomy ramblings on Twitter @KHesser.


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