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.

Georgia O’Keefe. Part 1 – The early years and the “Specials”

Georgia Totto O'Keefe photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)
Georgia Totto O’Keefe
photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

If I was to ask you who was the most quintessential American artist, I wonder whom you would choose. Would you go for one of the nineteenth century Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole or would you select one of the pioneering and tenacious American female painters who fought hard to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of art, such as Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Perhaps you would decide on one of the great twentieth century painters such as Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or the folk artist Grandma Moses. Then of course, let us not forget, there is John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and naturally there are the modern greats of American art such as Rofko, Warhol, Pollock and de Kooning. I suppose it is impossible to single out one from the list of artists who paint in so many different genres. However, for me, the painter who symbolises America is Georgia O’Keefe and in my next blogs I will look at her life and feature some of her best-loved paintings.

The O'Keefe farmhouse. outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin
The O’Keefe farmhouse.
outside Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, the second of seven children. She was the eldest of five girls and had a younger and elder brother. Her father, who was of Irish descent, was Francis Calyxtus O’Keefe, who ran a successful farmstead on the outskirts of the village of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, along with his wife Ida Ten O’Keefe (née Totto), whose maternal grandfather was a Hungarian count. The farm was spread over 1700 acres of land on which they raised cattle, horses and grew crops. When Georgia was five years of age she attended the small one-roomed South Prairie Town Hall school. She progressed well and she and her siblings were constantly being pushed to learn by their mother, who would read stories to her children and play the piano for them. In fact Georgia went on to play both piano and violin.

At the age of eleven Georgia developed an interest in drawing and painting and so her mother arranged private art tuition for her and two of her sisters, Ida and Anita. Georgia revelled in what she learnt, She then attended the Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison as a boarder and in a conversation with a friend and fellow 8th grade pupil she talked about her future dreams:

“…I am going to be an artist!…..I don’t really know where I got my artist idea…I only know that by that time it was definitely settled in my mind…”

The O'Keefe's house in Williamsburg
The O’Keefe’s house in Williamsburg

In 1902 her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia but Georgia, who was fifteen years old, stayed behind for a short time with her aunt. Soon after she re-joined her parents in Peacock Hill, a suburb of Williamsburg and enrolled as a boarder at the private Chatham Episcopal Institute for Girls. She continued to love art and her artistic talent was recognised by all and her fellow students elected her art editor of the school yearbook. In her yearbook was written the telling verse:

“…O is for O’Keefe.

an artist divine.

Her paintings

are perfect and

drawings are fine…”

In 1905, Georgia, now seventeen years of age, graduated from high school and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she honed her skills as an artist and studied composition, anatomy and life drawing. Her anatomical drawing class tutor was John Vanderpoel, the Dutch-American artist and teacher, who was best known as an instructor of figure drawing and whose 1907 book, The Human Figure, became a standard art school resource. Georgia O’Keefe excelled at the Academy and all was going well until the summer of the following year when she went home and contracted typhoid and was so ill that she was unable to rejoin the Academy. She had to remain at home to recuperate for more than twelve months.

Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O'Keefe (1908)
Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot by Georgia O’Keefe (1908)

When she finally got her health back in 1907, she decided to resume her art career but instead of returning to Chicago she enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York which was one of the top art colleges of the time. One of her tutors was William Merritt Chase, who was one of the foremost art teachers of his generation. At this institution aspiring young artists were trained in the European tradition, namely, learning to paint portraits and still-lifes. Once again her artistic talent shone through and the following year she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, in upstate New York, east of the Adirondack Mountains.

In 1908 things changed for Georgia. The Arts Student League of New York wanted to keep to the European tradition of art tuition, copying in the style of the Old Masters. It was a conservative formula and one will never know whether it was this rigid mimetic way of teaching art that disillusioned Georgia, but at the end of her year’s tuition in the autumn of 1908, she decided that she no longer wanted to become a professional artist. Another reason for giving up on her art studies was that her father’s business had collapsed and the family was in need of an extra income and so Georgia gave up her studies and embarked on a career as a commercial artist in Chicago where she spent her time designing adverts and company logos. She did not paint another picture for four years.

Georgia O'Keeffe, aged 30
Georgia O’Keeffe, aged 30

This artistic drought ended in 1912 when she attended a summer course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where one of the classes was run by Alon Bement of the Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. It was Bement who introduced O’Keefe to the radical thinking of his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, the head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College. Dow believed in the Modernist approach to art and postulated that rather than just copying nature, art should be created by the various elements of composition such as line, mass and colour. He put his thoughts into words in his 1899 book entitled Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. He summed his thoughts up in the introduction to the second edition of the work which came out in 1912. He wrote:

“…Composition … expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded – the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony. … Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. … A natural method is of exercises in progressive order, first building up very simple harmonies … Such a method of study includes all kinds of drawing, design and painting. It offers a means of training for the creative artist, the teacher or one who studies art for the sake of culture…”

Georgia O’Keefe who had tired of the mimetic teachings of the academy was enthralled by Dow’s ideas and her love for art was rekindled. In 1912, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she had accepted a position as supervisor of art in the city’s public schools. She took up a post in the August of 1912 as an art teacher at City Public School of Amarillo but she returned to the University of Virginia’s to attend the summer course the following year; this time as an assistant to Bement and in the autumn of 1914 she went back to New York and enrolled for two semesters at Columbia University Teachers’ College where she studied under Dow himself. It was around this time that she discovered the work of Arthur Garfield Dove. Dove, an American modernist painter, who has often been labelled as the first American abstract artist. He placed great emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of colour and line rather than just copying from nature. To Georgia this was not just a revelation but it was the kind of art, which she believed in and it was to influence her art for the rest of her life. For her, it was inspirational, and she happily set off on a new artistic journey. She was excited at the new ideas which flooded her brain and described how she felt:

“…I said to myself ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking……. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself…”

You can sense her joy. You can sense her feeling of casting off the shackles of rigid academic teaching. You can sense the elation in the way she saw her future.

Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915
Drawing XIII by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915

In September 1915, she accepted a teaching post at Columbia College, South Carolina and it is around this time she begins to experiment with her art, producing a series of amazing cutting-edge charcoal abstract drawings. One such drawing was entitled Drawing XIII which was completed in 1915. In this work we see that the image is sub-divided into three parallel sections. The left hand section has wavy vertical lines which reminds one of a meandering river although some say it is more like a vertical flickering flame reaching upwards. The central part of the work consists of four rounded bulbs which if we continue with our thoughts of nature could then be construed as round top hills. An alternative to this premise is that they are four densely foliated trees. The right hand section comprises of a series of jagged lines which could be a representation of mountains and so in a way this drawing may be a bird’s eye view of a range of mountains and a flowing river with trees separating the two.

Early No. 2 by Georgia O'Keefe (1915)
Early No. 2 by Georgia O’Keefe (1915)

Another of her charcoal works was entitled Early No. 2 which she also completed in 1915. O’Keefe has followed the advice of Arthur Dow and focused on the lines, shapes and tonal values which she, like Dow, believed were the fundamentals of the picture. Her reasoning behind these early drawings being in black and white and devoid of colour was her belief that colour would distract viewers from what she had hoped to create. It was all about curves and geometrical shapes and the clever balance between areas of the work which were light and shaded.

No. 12 Special by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
No. 12 Special by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Georgia O’Keefe was proud of her first foray into this new world of art and she would often refer to these early drawings as “Specials” indicating how much they meant to her. She mailed some of these drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had been a Columbia classmate of hers. Pollitzer, who was now a photographer in May 1916, took them to show the internationally reknowned photographer and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who had his gallery, 291, at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Stieglitz was impressed with what he saw and described them as:

“…the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered ‘291’ in a long while…”

Special No. 15 by Georgia O'Keefe (1916)
Special No. 15 by Georgia O’Keefe (1916)

Unbeknown to O’Keefe, Stieglitz exhibited her drawings at his gallery alongside works by other artists. When O’Keefe found out about this, she was not best pleased but later forgave him. This initial collaboration between artist and gallery owner was to be a turning point in Georgia O’Keefe’s artistic life.

…………….to be continued.