Georgia O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Wisconsin. A student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905, she joined the Art Students League in New York two years later. It was at this time that she visited the avant-garde gallery « 291 », directed by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. There she discovered the works of Rodin, Picasso and Cézanne and was confronted with modern art, far from the education she had received.
The freedom of style of Rodin’s drawings and their erotic power made an impression on O’keeffe, who drew inspiration from them ten years later for a series of nudes in watercolour.
This watercolour, part of a series, is one of the few works by the artist to depict the human figure.
While Alfred Stieglitz brought modern European art to America, he also organized exhibitions of modern American artists and regularly highlighted the work of photographers.
Arthur Dove was the first American artist to experiment with abstraction. This painting is a tribute to the jazz musician Irving Berlin and his song « Orange grove in California ». Dove tries to transcribe the rhythm of jazz music into paint.
Georgia stopped painting for a while and then taught at a university in Texas. In 1916, she sent a series of charcoal drawings and watercolours to her friend, Anita Politzer, who had stayed in New York. She chose to show them to Stieglitz, who immediately decided to exhibit them at Gallery 291. Fascinated, he exhibited Georgia’s work every year until his death in 1941.
The teaching she received from the painter Arthur Wesley Dow was based in particular on the study of oriental drawing. This influence can be seen here in the lines that evoke calligraphy.
She evokes the movements of nature and the idea of germination through abstract forms.
From 1918 onwards, Georgia left Texas to settle in New York. She produced works marked by a taste for botany and flowers. She met with the wrath of the critics who saw in her paintings an explicit image of female sensuality. Paradoxically, it was this scandal that launched her career and fame.
The vertical lines, the black hollow, the marbling of the white colour evoke the folds and creases of a fabric.
Georgia soon fell in love with Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. They settled down together and divided their time between New York and Lake George, where the photographer’s family had a second home. This rural landscape reminded the artist of his childhood in the country.
The simple and austere architecture of the barns refers to the geometric forms of Cubism.
In 1925, Georgia and Alfred moved into a flat in one of Manhattan’s newly constructed buildings. This was an opportunity for her to take an interest in the urban landscape she observed from her windows.
To the horizontality of the farms of Lake George, the artist opposes the verticality of the skyscrapers. She studies the effects of natural and artificial light, which soften the image of the buildings, reduced to simple stacks of geometric shapes.
Georgia had been painting flowers for a long time, but in the early 1920s she tried to render them in a more original way. She decided to depict them in very close-up, so that they took up the whole canvas. This close-up view shows the influence of her photographer friends, especially Paul Strand. Critics continued to see erotic allusions in these close-up petals and pistils, an interpretation that the artist always rejected.
These corn leaves, seen in very close-up, are typical of this period. The way in which the subject is cut off at the edges is also a practice derived from photographic framing. O’Keeffe was influenced in particular by her friend Paul Strand, who photographed plants or everyday objects in close-up.
1929 was an important date in Georgia’s career. She was invited to stay in New Mexico. She discovered a landscape and light that fascinated her and prompted her to settle there for six months of the year. She walks alone in the desert and, unable to find flowers, collects bones which she then brings back to the studio to paint. For her, her bones, like the dead trees, are not morbid and continue to express the cycle of life.
In the mid-1950s, Georgia bought a house in New Mexico, Ghost Ranch, which was totally isolated and surrounded by desert. She painted many times the mountain visible from the house, which became her « own Sainte-Victoire », in reference to Cézanne. She also painted the surrounding landscapes, humanising their forms, giving them a sensual aspect, as she did with flowers.
She is also interested in the culture of the Pueblo Indians, in particular the Kachina dolls which materialise the forces of nature. She attends secret ceremonies and then retransmits the sensations she has perceived in paint.
She transcribes the gyratory dances of the Indians, the sounds of the songs and the beating of the drums.
From 1950, the artist began to travel the world. Some of her paintings were inspired by the views she saw from the windows of planes (rivers seen from above, sky above the clouds…)
This view of a river, seen from a plane, becomes a pure abstraction.
With this vision of the immensity of the sky, Georgia joins the taste for the Sublime dear to the Romantic painters. The painting evokes C.D. Friedrich, with the same sense of a nature greater than man.
In general, from the 1950s onwards, O’Keeffe’s work tended towards simplification and synthesis of form. She subjected her motifs to ever greater abstraction, as can be seen in the various canvases depicting the door to the patio of her house.
Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98, having become an icon of modern American art, as famous in America as Picasso or Matisse in Europe. All her life, she had sought to paint the cosmic forces of nature. Her art is the fusion of the subject she represents with her own emotions.