Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986)

Barbara Sparhawk

Carmel Valley, United States

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Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe. Oil on Canvas
American Artist. Georgia O’Keeffe was raised in Wisconsin, educated in Chicago and Virginia, taught, painted, and lived on the east coast until her early sixties when she moved to Abiquiu, & Santa Fe, New Mexico. Close to one hundred when she died in 1986, living alone and painting in scenery that inspired her famous flowers in closeup with strong sexuality, voluptuous lilies and poppies, stark desert landscapes and animal skeletons. She worked in charcoal, water color, and finally oils, and worked large.

I’m not sure her story is known well outside the states. She was photographed, courted, and married (1924) by famed 1920’s photographer Alfred Stieglitz who adored her, left his wife and family for her, and made her more famous than he was. She too, was madly in love with him. His black and white photographs of O’Keeffe filled Stieglitz’s famed “291” gallery in New York and caused a sensation with portraits focused on her beautiful bone structure and striking looks, and spectacular nudity. He took over 300 portraits of her from 1918 to 1937. Stieglitz may have been in love, but smart enough of a businessman to cause O’Keeffe’s work to skyrocket in price, averaging $100,000 a painting, monumental for a living artist and a woman in that time. What he did for her career lasted, interest waned some but revived and her work is priceless now. Every girl painter can use a Stieglitz, few get one. Stieglitz died in 1946 and she moved permanently to New Mexico three years later after cataloguing his work and papers. She was 59, began a new life in a landscape she claimed as her own. “God said I may have that mountain,” she’d written, “if I paint it enough.” So she did.
I painted this from one of Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe.
When you do portraits, you start to hear conversations from that time, get a sense of the thinking of the subject, smells and impressions wander through you or assault you inescapably. It’s a fascinating and somewhat dangerous occupation because when you put down the brush and turn away you wonder where the hell you’ve been and question your sanity. I’ve come to accept it as just what happens and there it is. One cannot help but see Stieglitz’s fascination with O’Keeffe’s profound physical symmetry. It bothered me. I thought it annoyed Georgia, too, that he was making more of it than in truth was there. Certainly a thoughtfully bright, introspective & solid woman. But he did not capture the O’Keeffe who stood in the desert in thunderstorms alone in the middle of the night to draw the electricity in the air into her being, which she was notorious for doing. Or the O’Keeffe who lived alone on her Ghost Ranch, and drove in her Model A Ford recklessly to plateaus and mountains of New Mexico to soak in the wilderness. DH Lawrence, Ansel Adams, the Lindberghs were visitors.
It’s not the last portrait I’ll do of her, but I wanted to see more in her than Stieglitz’s precision, no matter how beautiful that is to see.
I think he was incredibly kind and thoughtful about this woman’s life, and helped her reach a financial independence undreamt of for an artist of her time and sex. Stieglitz said of the first drawings of Georgia O’Keeffe that he saw: “Finally, a woman on paper!” He admired her, and he loved her. I can’t blame him for thinking her perfect. I’m just not so sure he saw the savage in Georgia.

Other US photographers who did some earlier radical work in b/w, nature, and nudes you might want to visit: Ansel Adams. Brett, Edward, and Cole Weston.

Edna St Vincent Millay wrote: “My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!”
Which, published in 1918 became an anthem to end constraints on overwatched Victorian girls. A wild, free life… edged with death.
The Hawks Perch

Artwork Comments

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