With a major Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective at New York’s MoMA this summer, we look back at the life and work of this trailblazing female artist through her large-scale flower paintings.
Georgia O’Keeffe was an influential force in the world of modernism and a pioneer of feminist expressionist painting, often referred to as the queen of the Modernist art movement in America. She was born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and spent her childhood surrounded by nature, exploring the outdoors, which would later become a major source of inspiration for her artwork, as would the deserts of New Mexico.
O’Keefe attended the School of Art Institute of Chicago where she learned painting techniques that she used throughout her career. She moved to New York City in 1905 to pursue work as a commercial artist and illustrator, and in 1908 she began her studies at the Art Students League of New York, where she was inspired by the works of Cezanne and Picasso. She found a mentor in renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz, owner of New York’s renowned 291 gallery, who saw the uniqueness in her work. Upon seeing her work, Stieglitz is said to have remarked, ”Finally, a woman on paper.” Still, he mistakenly labelled her first show at his gallery as Virginia O’Keeffe, rather than Georgia. Eventually the couple married, and she became one of his most acclaimed subjects, with several portraits and nude photos taken by him that promoted her sexual liberation.
It was during this time that O’Keeffe began to gain recognition for her own artwork, especially her paintings of flowers which were seen as part of a larger movement in modernist art. Using a combination of vivid colours and bold strokes, O’Keeffe depicted flower petals up close so that viewers could appreciate their detailed beauty. Her painting Red Poppy (1924) featured a single, large red poppy, which was seen as a symbol of female sexuality. An Orchid (1941) similarly, depicts up close a flower that is highly prized and exotic, with sexual overtones.
In her paintings of flowers, O’Keeffe incorporated symbolism from her own life experiences to bring attention to the subject matter. She often used biomorphism, a technique where shapes and forms are derived from nature but with an abstract quality. She usually focused on the centre of flowers, where their reproductive anatomy is located, which led critics to assume the message was purely sexual. But her message was far more complicated and nuanced than that, she said.
One of her first large-scale floral-themed works is Flower of Life II, which she started in 1918. By drawing attention to the inherent androgyny of her subject matter, she was also contradicting the idea that her work was tied to her gender. In a similar vein, O’Keeffe, who was incredibly stylish and ahead of her time, dressed in a decidedly androgenous fashion, in black monastic robes and a head scarf.
One of O’Keefe’s most iconic works is Calla Lily (1928), which features a white flower in the foreground and blue sky in the background. In this painting O’Keeffe juxtaposed elements of femininity—the softness and delicacy of a flower—with masculinity—the expanse and depth of the sky. Sigmund Freud had recently provided a sexual interpretation of the calla lily’s form, and it thus became an important motif for artists, including O’Keeffe, who in the 1930s used it so regularly became known as “the lady of the lilies.”
The title of the MoMA show this summer, “To See Takes Time,” comes from one of O’Keefe’s keen observations about flowers:
“Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time—and the see takes time—like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see…. So I said to myself…I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it. I will make even busy New Yorkers to see what I see of flowers.”
O’Keeffe also once said, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for.” Through her flower paintings, O’Keeffe was able to express a new vision of femininity as something strong, independent and beautiful. She paved the way for other female artists to explore their creative visions without fear or shame. In addition to her artwork, O'Keeffe wrote several books about her life and ideas on art, including Portrait of an Artist (1929) which she co-authored with her husband Stieglitz. In it she wrote: “I paint because I must. There is no other reason, and the pictures are very much part of myself.”
O’Keeffe is celebrated (through August 12, 2023) with a major retrospective called “To See Takes Time” at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.