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Georgia O’Keeffe died 26 years ago today. I’ve long been fascinated with O’Keeffe and her place in the history of 20th Century American art, first as a member of the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) and later as a cultural icon in her own right. Starting out as a member of a group of men in an era when women weren’t taken very seriously as artists, she went on to eclipse them all. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s particularly well-documented.

Summer Days (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1936)

O’Keeffe lived for well over 90 years and painted long enough to have several distinct periods evident in her work. She’s probably best known for the floating cow skulls and other images of New Mexico, where she eventually relocated to spend the last 40 years of her life. She did revolutionary work with large close-ups of flowers early in her career and gave it up because too many observers saw sexual connotations in the paintings that she vehemently denied. I am particularly enchanted with her cityscapes. She was a prolific painter with varied interests and left an indelible impression on American culture for most of the 20th Century.

Two Calla Lillies on Pink (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1928)

She was an integral part of a group of American Modernist painters like John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth and she endured long after they became art historical footnotes. She crashed the art world’s essentially all-male party in the 1920s and 30s, paving the way for succeeding generations of women artists,  then soundly rejected the adoration of feminists in the 1970s. She was reclusive, secretive, and a little weird.

The Radiator Building at Night (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927)

It’s interesting to speculate about how O’Keeffe’s career trajectory would have been different had Stieglitz, a huge mover and shaker on the American art scene in the early part of the 20th Century, not married her and devoted so much time and energy to advancing her career (She was the last artist shown at Stieglitz’s monumentally influential New York gallery 291). At least one biographer, Stieglitz niece Sue Davidson Lowe, insists that O’Keeffe’s talent would have propelled her to the fore regardless. I’m not so sure. She was a talented painter but her standoffish and disagreeable personality may not have served her well without Stieglitz’s relentless promotion. If the last 40 years of art history have taught us anything, it’s that PR trumps talent every time.

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