GEORGIA Totto O’Keeffe, the acclaimed American painter and pioneer of modern art, lived long enough she was 98 when she died to see her work honoured as masterpieces in American museums. She continued to paint regularly well into her eighties until her eyesight began to fail, and she had to give up what she once called her “struggle to do justice to the feelings Nature inspires.”
After the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the famous pioneer photographer and patron of the arts, she became a semi-recluse in New Mexico with a close companion, a much younger sculptor named Juan Hamilton. She and Hamilton went to New York in 1983 when she was 95 to join in the centennial celebrations of Stieglitz’s art as a photographer. Asked then- “If she was still painting, she replied sharply, “Do you think I can see what you look like? If you do, you’re mistaken.” She added: “You know, when you get so that you can’t see, you come to it gradually. And if you didn’t come to it gradually, I guess you’d just kill yourself.” Her career as a painter was over long before her life ended, and she found her last unproductive years hard to bear.
Born on November 15, 1887, the day of the United States Senate turned down the proposal that women should have the right to vote, Patsy O’Keeffe, as she was known in her youth, was a Wisconsin farmer’s daughter, and, however far away she travelled when she became famous, she continued to draw her inspiration from the kind of open, untamed prairie scenes she grew up in. Her most famous paintings were dominated by sensuous flowers and bleached bones against abstract skies, with red bloodlike earth vividly reflecting deep emotions and passions.
Irish on her father’s side, Hungarian on her mother’s, she was educated at the Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, where she insisted God was a woman to the teachers’ consternation. Her first love was music, and she once said towards the end of her life, “Since I couldn’t sing, I decided to paint.” In 1905 she studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and two years later joined the Art Students’ League in New York. It was unusual then for a woman, not yet 20 to go alone to a big city to pursue a career. Early on she nearly gave up painting because she saw herself as a mere imitator, and she decided to experiment in conveying her feelings through colours and objects. She began to find her own style.
She first met her future husband when she went to Stieglitz’s little gallery on Fifth Avenue to see an exhibition of Rodin’s drawings. She was more impressed by Stieglitz than by, Rodin, and while she was away seeing her family a friend showed Stieglitz some of her charcoal drawings. Influenced by the new wave of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, she had rejected realism as unable to match the beauty of the original.
Stieglitz was astounded by the power, of her drawings, and their feminine, feelings. “At last a woman on paper!” he exclaimed. He exhibited the drawings without her permission, and she indignantly demanded he take them down, but he talked her out of it. They caused a sensation for their “naive sexuality” and the young artist in a severe robe-like gown also created a strong impression. She escaped the New York celebrity circus by taking a teaching job in Texas where she painted a series of water “colours of the western sky “coloured light,” she called them and on April 3, 1917, Stieglitz used these abstracts as the basis of her first solo show.
Three days later the US declared war on Germany and Stieglitz closed his gallery. O’Keefe modelled for his photographic portraits, 500 pictures of her in all and they fell in love. At 54, nearly 25 years older, Stieglitz left his wife and daughter to live with her. On borrowed money, she began to paint full time and soon her abstracts in rainbow colours were included in major exhibitions in several American cities and paintings were sold for high prices.
In 1924 she and Stieglitz held a joint exhibition and they were married the same year, with ” love, honour and obey” omitted from the service at her request. -Unlike most American artists, she refused to go to Europe. “I have things to do in my own country,” she said and the sculptor, Brancusi, praised her as an American original, ” a liberating free force.” Her new paintings, with emotional colour schemes and erotic shapes, were attacked as “oversexed,” but that only brought her more attention.
In 1927 when she. was 40, critic Lewis Mumford called her “the most original artist in America.” On a first visit to. New Mexico she became fascinated by dry white, animal skeletons scattered over the desert, and these became her symbol of the Depression years in America. In 1932 her first work was sold to the prestigious Metropolitan Museum in New York. More and more honours followed until vast retrospectives were held in Chicago and New York in 1946, summing up her life’s work and her influence on modern American art, but it meant little to her because that was the year Stieglitz, then 82, died.
She made the first visit to Europe and refused to meet Picasso, ostensibly because she couldn’t speak French. She escaped to New Mexico and settled in an adobe house She seldom expressed her feelings except in her passionate outdoor abstractions, but her dimming eyesight upset her last years. It was a sad, frustrating ending for a great artist and a great woman.
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