Georgia OKeeffe1






Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist of world renown but a person of mysterious
character. She lived a unique life which was not accepted as moral by most people. She
surrounded herself with artistic, creative minds and carefully selected her friends and
confidants. Events in her youth influenced her actions and artwork for almost 100 years.
O’Keeffe moved about the country, a lover of travel who never was satiated. She came
from an eccentric family with mixed ethnic heritage, and the women around her were
strong and self- confident. Her life was an epic tale, worthy of retelling.
On November 15, 1887, Georgia was second born of seven children to Ida and
Francis O’Keeffe. Living in rural Wisconsin, her father came from a typical Irish Catholic
matriarchy, where mother’s word was final. Ida O’Keeffe was an ambitious woman
“whose dream of becoming a doctor was laid to rest...by her marriage to the tenant farmer
Frank...in a loveless union (Hogrefe 13).” Perhaps it was the stifling of her ambition that
led Ida to treat Georgia so badly. As a young girl, the artist was described as precocious,
mentally mature, and “queen of the castle“, whether it be in relation to her siblings or
fellow students in the studio. Either way, her mother was generally a cold person who
offered little affection to her oldest daughter, even going so far as to lock her in the back
room, alone, when company came. Thus, Georgia turned to a close relationship with her
father. The family knew that Georgia was Frank’s favorite, and he took her on excursions
and gave her special privileges.
All this came with consequences, though. It is a widely accepted fact that she was
sexually abused by her father, older brother, or both, which accounts for many of
O’Keeffe’s “unorthodox” behaviors throughout her life. For example, in boarding school
she was known to kiss and touch her female classmates frequently. When enrolled in
classes at the Art Students’ League in New York City, she ran, terrified, out of a figure
drawing class where stood a male nude model. In all her years, Georgia surrounded
herself with ineffectual males who were frequently homosexual. Perhaps she liked them
because they posed no threat to her. On the other hand, she adored her female
counterparts, having friendships with some and sexual relationships with others. She was
even known to sit in a shed at the Stieglitz summer home in Lake George, NY, and paint
naked for hours. Sometimes her young niece would make art at her side, and it is
uncertain whether there were romantic relations between them. It was clear that
Georgia’s unusual upbringing led to an unusual lifestyle, in any case.
Ida seemed to want a somewhat normal life for her children, and insisted they be
brought up Protestant, but the only private school in the area was Catholic. The
O’Keeffes could only afford to send one child at a time, and rotated public and private
education yearly. Georgia had many memories of being taught by strict and severe nuns.
She received art instruction beginning in her youth and thus began a legacy of creative
genius.
O’Keeffe’s first interaction with the masters like Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and
others was by copying famous works. This practice was widely used and encouraged in
art schools all over the world. Then she met a teacher who instructed her in the Dow
Method. “Instead of copying the works of others, [it] advocated that students produce
original artwork from the beginning of their instruction.(Hogrefe 25).” Alon Bement
taught Georgia most of the concepts she would ever use or apply in her artwork. This
was the summer of 1912 at the University of Virginia.
After this, Georgia took up a teaching position in Amarillo, Texas, an area she
found to be paradisiacal. She was an excellent teacher, well- liked, and always kept her
students interested. The Texan landscape was like nothing she had ever seen before, with
skies and plains stretching out further than the mind could fathom. The places she saw in
the West inspired her, and she could never escape it for very long without feeling a strong
sense of longing. It was from there that she drew most of the objects, images and
memories which she put in her paintings. She lived out west for a significant portion of
her life because things were simpler and most people did not ask too many questions.
One of O’Keeffe’s friends from art school in New York