Georgia O’Keefe. Part 2 – Alfred Stieglitz, Lake George and New York Skyscrapers

Georgia O'Keefe (c. 1920)
Georgia O’Keefe (c. 1920)

Georgia O’Keefe’s annoyance at the high-handed attitude of Alfred Stieglitz in exhibiting ten of her charcoal abstract works in his gallery alongside other artists’ paintings, without her permission, in May 1916 soon cooled off and maybe Stieglitz decided to make amends by offering Georgia a solo exhibition at his gallery. She agreed and in April 1917 she had her first solo show. It was the final exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery as shortly afterwards it closed.

Evening Star by Georgia O'Keefe (1917)
Evening Star by Georgia O’Keefe (1917)

Georgia had initially been completing works in black and white insisting that colour would detract from the work itself. However for this solo exhibition she submitted oil paintings and watercolours which she had been working on whilst living in Texas. As far as the use of colour was concerned she admitted:

“…I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other ways – things I had no words for…”

Georgia had been living in Canyon, Texas, a small town south of Amarillo and in the autumn of 1916 she had taken up a post as head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) and remained there until February 1918. The rugged area around Canyon such as the Palo Duro Canyon fascinated O’Keefe and she visited there many times gaining inspiration for her paintings. She would spend hours witnessing the bright and shimmering sunrises and flaming sunsets and it could have been this explosion of colour that changed her mind about restricting herself to black and white drawings

Sunrise by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Sunrise by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz although living thousands of miles apart corresponded regularly and once again fate played a part in the course of her life. In this case fate came in the form of an influenza epidemic which, in 1918, was sweeping across America and which killed around 750,000 people. Georgia was struck down by it in the February and her recovery was slow and prolonged and she eventually had to give up her teaching post. Alfred Stieglitz was very concerned about Georgia’s health and sent his friend and fellow photographer Paul Strand to Texas to try and persuade Georgia to leave Texas and come to New York where he would support her health-wise and financially. She acquiesced and although still very ill arrived in New York in June 1918 and went to live in a studio which belonged to Stieglitz’s niece. Stieglitz slowly nursed Georgia back to health and during this time the couple fell in love.

Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Lake George, Autumn by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

When she was well enough she went to live with Stieglitz at his Lake George home in upstate New York. It was more than just a house and home; it was a former farm covering thirty-six-acres. It was situated along the western shore, in the southern section of the thirty-mile-long glacial lake, which was popularly known as “the Queen of American lakes”. It was here that she convalesced amongst the peace and tranquillity of the flower-filled meadows and forest areas around his family home. It was here that she would return from the bustling New York city every summer for the next sixteen years. She enjoyed to take long walks through the wooded hillsides, often took on strenuous hikes up Prospect Mountain so as to gain sight of spectacular views of the lake below, a lake on which she also enjoyed to row upon. Georgia had first been introduced to the Lake George area back in 1907, when she was a student at the Art Students League and had received a scholarship to paint in the region. O’Keefe and Stieglitz would spend the winters in their apartment in New York and from April to September or October would live in the large house on the banks of Lake George.

Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)
Georgia painting at Lake George (1918)

However there were many people descending on the property during the summer months. Relatives and friends of Stieglitz and his family were always coming and going throughout the summer months so much so the peace and tranquil life O’Keefe had hankered for was lost. Georgia desperately wanted a calm and quiet time alone to concentrate on her work. The problem was resolved when she persuaded Stieglitz to allow her to use a small wooden farm building which was part of the estate for her own private studio. It was on its own, in a field on a hill above the house. She had found solitude at last where she could shut out everybody and concentrate on her work. Her pleasure at being at Lake George was clear in a letter she wrote in 1923, to her friend, the American novelist and short story writer, Sherwood Anderson:

“…I wish you could see the place here – there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees – Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces – it seems so perfect – but it is really lovely – And when the household is in good running order – and I feel free to work it is very nice…”

My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
My Shanty, Lake George by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

Georgia produced a number of works featuring her new summer surroundings and even one, in 1922, of this new” bolt hole”. It was entitled My Shanty, Lake George. It is a simple yet atmospheric depiction of the isolated old farm building which became her summer studio, away from the distractions of the big lake house. In a way it is a reflection of O’Keefe’s desire for solitude. There is a noticeable contrast between the man-made object and nature. The flat geometric depiction of the building is in complete contrast to the curves of the trees and the hills. There is also a great contrast in colour. The sombre dark colours of the building itself is in contrast with the softer pinks and oranges used for the wildflowers and the greens of the grass in the foreground. The darkness of the shanty is however vividly lightened by the intense white window frame and mullion and they serve as the paintings focal point. In the background we can see blue-black sweep of the hills, above which are dark storm clouds.

Georgia O’Keefe painted many pictures featuring Lake George. As far as the composition is concerned they were often very similar. The top third of the painting was dedicated to the mountains. The middle ground of the work was a depiction of the lake and in the foreground were the trees.

Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O'Keefe (1922)
Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) by Georgia O’Keefe (1922)

However in the case of her 1922 painting, Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape) the well tried composition changed and the shoreline of the lake disappears and the work almost becomes an abstract one. The colours and tonal quality of this work are so beautiful that if trees had been added to the foreground they would have been a distraction and detracted from the overall depiction.

Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)
Emmeline Obermeyer (c.1910)

On face value, this falling in love between Georgia, the artist and Alfred, the photographer and living together in New York and the family home at Lake George seems an idyllic situation but there was one problem, one major problem – Stieglitz was already married! In November 1893, after a great deal of pressure from his family who wanted to see him settle down with a wife, Alfred Stieglitz had married Emmeline Obermeyer. He had known her for a number of years and she was the sister of his close friend and business associate Joe Obermeyer. It was not a marriage based on love. They were an oddly matched couple and in his book, The Love Lives of the Artists: Five Stories of Creative Intimacy, Daniel Bullen writes about this mismatch:

“…Stieglitz was twenty-nine – and she had always been sheltered by her family’s considerable brewery wealth, so they were incompatible from the beginning. Stieglitz had already lived with a prostitute, and Emmy was not his choice of wife. She had not met him on artistic grounds, and she refused to pose nude for him: by various accounts, they did not consummate their marriage for between one and four years…”

As far as Emmy was concerned, it was a case of unrequited love. She loved him. He didn’t love her. Emmy had inherited money from her late father who had run a brewing empire. Could it be that Emmy’s wealth smoothed over Stieglitz unhappiness with the marriage, especially as around this time, his own father had lost a large amount of money on the Stock Market? The marriage was doomed to fail despite the couple having a daughter Kitty in 1898. They had nothing in common. They had no shared interests. Stieglitz soon tired of his wife and they spent long periods of time apart as he carried on with his photographic career, travelling all over Europe. Richard Whelan in his 1995 biography of the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography, wrote that Stieglitz resented her bitterly for not becoming his twin.

Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz
Katherine, daughter of Alfred and Emmeline Stieglitz

Despite his unhappiness at being trapped in a loveless marriage and his open relationship with O’Keefe, Stieglitz could not extricate himself from his marriage to Emmy until September 1924, six years after he had originally filed for divorce. Alfred and Georgia married in late December 1924. Georgia had been somewhat reluctant to enter into marriage as she saw no point in formalising their relationship as she and Stieglitz had lived together for six years and survived the scandal attached to his extra-marital liaison. The marriage took place at the home of their friend and fellow artist, John Marin.

There was little or no pomp and ceremony to the occasion. Nobody was invited to a reception or help celebrate the marriage. In fact there was no honeymoon following the event. In her 1989 biography of the artist, Georgia O’Keefe, A Life, Roxanna Robinson, quotes O’Keefe as saying that she and Stieglitz married in order to help soothe the troubles of Stieglitz’s daughter Katherine, who at that time was being treated in a sanatorium for depression and hallucinations.

Shelton Hotel by Georgia O'Keefe (1926)
Shelton Hotel by Georgia O’Keefe (1926)

The following year, 1925, Georgia and Stieglitz moved their New York home to the Shelton Hotel in New York, taking an apartment suite on the 28th floor of the new building and it was here and the summer home at Lake George that the couple would spend the next 12 years. One can just imagine how their dual aspect apartment in the hotel, with vistas to the north and south, afforded them spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city. Georgia began to paint pictures of the city skyscrapers, including the Shelton Hotel itself, the Radiator Building and the Ritz Tower all from a low-level viewpoint.

Radiator Building - Night, New York by Georgia O'Keefe (1927)
Radiator Building – Night, New York by Georgia O’Keefe (1927)

Her depiction of the Radiator Building in 1927, entitled Radiator Building – Night, New York is a haunting study of the magnificent building on West 40th Street, in midtown Manhattan which was completed three years earlier in 1924. The painting depicts a night scene of the building in which the illuminated windows shimmer against the dark of the building and the darkness of the night. To the right of the building we see steam and smoke slowly rising upwards from some ventilation system whilst in the left hand background searchlights scan the night sky and a red neon sign glows in the left background.

This type of painting by Georgia O’Keefe led her to be connected with an informal group of American artists who were inspired by the size and scale of modern American structures, such as bridges and skyscrapers. They were known as Precisionists or Immaculates and it was during the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s that Precisionism blossomed. Sometimes it was referred to as Cubist-Realism.

My next blog, the third part of Georgia O’Keefe’s life story, will focus on her large flower paintings and will explore her relationship with Stieglitz and her decision to live apart from him and head for the desert state of New Mexico which was to influence her later art.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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