Essays

A Way of Seeing with Georgia O’Keeffe

Words By sheila lam

 

Georgia O’Keeffe once said of her work, “If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it, no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll paint what I see,’ what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” It is an apt lesson on having your own perspective from one of the most recognized painters of the 20th century.

Through lush, figurative paintings of flora and the great American Southwest, Georgia O’Keeffe’s work has cemented her in the canon of great artists. Her paintings, the way she was as a woman in the world, and the lifestyle she chose to lead created a sometimes mythical portrait. She hosted dinners using foraged and wild ingredients gathered in the high desert landscape around her home in New Mexico. She accepted commissions from big-name brands only to submit work on her terms. And lived a life dictated by her distinctive choices without pressure from social norms.

Left: Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, New Mexico, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, August 16, 1950.
From the collection of the Library of Congress.

 

Of Irish and Hungarian heritage, she was born in Wisconsin on November 15, 1887. Growing up on the family farm, she would go on to study first at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Art Students League in New York. While in New York, she briefly worked as an elementary school art teacher. In 1916, she met photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz and was given her first solo exhibition as an artist. She and Stieglitz would later wed. During their life together in New York, O’Keeffe’s work comprised cityscapes: an oil on masonite painting of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1949.

 

But after moving to New Mexico in 1949 following decades of annual visits, desert motifs around her homes in Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú took over and ultimately became her greatest inspirations. Her sweeping landscapes were simple in composition, almost abstract, but complex in awareness. Her depictions of nature, animal skulls, and pastel flowers were intricate and spellbinding, never frivolous. In 2014, her painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, a magnified bloom, sold for $44.4 million. Setting the record for the most expensive artwork by a woman ever sold. Of it, she said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around, so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it, no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll paint what I see,’ what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.”

– Georgia O’Keeffe

Right: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, oil on canvas.
Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

 

In 1962, O’Keeffe was inducted into the American Academy of Arts of Letters and received the National Medal of Arts in 1985. Just a year later, she passed at 98 on March 6, 1986, in Santa Fe, befitting as her place of rest was where she sought such great creativity. Throughout her life, Georgia O’Keeffe sought to illustrate and express what she described as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” The essence of her work, and arguably its success, lies in her mastery of capturing and depicting not just what she saw, but precisely how she saw it – her incomparable eye for the unseen. ■

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