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Black and white photograph of a cow skull hanging on a brick wall. A woman leans against the wall, holding its snout in her right hand, her nose pressed against its side. Black and white photograph of a cow skull hanging on a brick wall. A woman leans against the wall, holding its snout in her right hand, her nose pressed against its side.

12 Things to Know about Georgia O’Keeffe

Inside an Exhibition


I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from a single thing that I wanted to do.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

That fact alone is probably a good thing to start with. People often know Georgia O’Keeffe for her paintings of flowers, animal skulls, the Southwest, cityscapes, or abstractions. They might also know her persona as it was often presented in photographs—self-contained and stoic.

As an artist, she developed at her own pace, and knowing that she had to constantly overcome fear makes her life that much more inspiring. So here are a dozen other things we think you’d like to know about this fascinating and original American artist:

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to a family of dairy farmers, and by the age of 12 had decided to become an artist.

She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906 but had to pause her education for a year to recuperate from typhoid fever.

In 1907, she studied painting with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in New York and eventually saw works by Rodin and Matisse at 291, the avant-garde gallery owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Yes, contact with the city this way has certainly helped me as no amount of solitude in the country could.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

In 1908, driven by financial necessity, she stopped painting and went to work as a commercial artist back in Chicago, designing lace and embroidery. Over the next decade she traveled and worked as an art teacher in Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas.

In 1912, she studied drawing at the University of Virginia, which offered a nontraditional and more experimental approach to art developed in part by Arthur Wesley Dow, who had been influenced by Japanese prints.

She returned to New York City in 1914 to study with Dow at Columbia University and became more and more familiar with European modernism and abstraction, seeing works by Picasso and Braque at Stieglitz’s 291.

I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me—shapes and ideas near to me—so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew to strip away what I had been taught.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

She moved back to New York in 1918 after Stieglitz created a solo show of some of her abstract charcoal drawings and watercolor landscapes at his gallery.

Between 1918 and 1949, she lived primarily in Manhattan. She married Stieglitz in 1924, and they moved into the Shelton Hotel, then the world’s tallest residential building, which inspired her with new views of the cityscape.

I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Around 1927, O’Keeffe began earning enough money from the sale of her paintings, including her New Yorks, to support herself as an artist. Stieglitz showed O’Keeffe’s work in his gallery every year until his death in 1946.

Although she had spent most summers in Lake George in upstate New York, she traveled to New Mexico for the first time in 1929 and started to spend summers there, captivated by the landscape.

Nothing is less real than realism… . It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

In 1945, O’Keeffe set up a home and studio in Abiquiu near Santa Fe in New Mexico, and after settling Stieglitz’s estate in New York, she returned to New Mexico in 1949 and lived there until her death in 1986 at the age of 98.

The Art Institute, which gave O’Keeffe her first museum retrospective in 1943 (purchasing Black Cross, New Mexico out of the show), received a major gift from the artist in 1949: the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, which included paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, and photographs by artists other than O’Keeffe. Between 1949 and her death, she gifted her own works, followed by a bequest of five works. 

Georgia O’Keeffe

#13 (A Baker’s Dozen)
Not a thing you need to know but a thing to see: here’s O’Keeffe in 1967 standing beside three of her paintings during one of her frequent visits to the Art Institute.

Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe stands beside Blue and Green Music, 1919/21; Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, 1931; and Red and Pink Rocks and Teeth, 1938.

The exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: “My New Yorks” opens June 2 and runs through September 22.

See more works by the artist in our collection.



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