Georgia O’Keefe is a famous American painter who painted beautiful flowers and landscapes. But she painted these images in such a way that many people believed she was portraying sexual imagery. “O’Keefe’s depictions of flowers in strict frontality and enlarged to giant scale were entirely original in character . . . the view into the open blossoms evoked an image of the female psyche and invited erotic associations.” (Joachimides 47) O’Keefe denies these allegations and says that she “magnified the scale of the flower only to ensure people would notice them.” (Haskell 203) O’Keefe’s artwork was misinterpreted because of cultural prejudice, her non-traditional lifestyle, and gender bias art criticism. But despite these accusations, Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork was not based on sexuality.
O’Keefe was born on November 15, 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents were dairy farmers and throughout her childhood she lived on her family’s farm. Georgia had a rough childhood growing up on the farm. Her mother did not especially like her and when she was not busy ignoring her, she treated her very badly. Although her mother disliked her, Georgia’s father loved her unconditionally and gave her the love her mother deprived her of. But he also molested her, a tramatizing drawback that would follow her for the rest of her life. Although she knew what her father was doing was wrong, she refused to admit this to herself because he was the only loved one she truly had. So, when Georgia’s father left, she was heartbroken (Hogrefe 14). “The abandonment she must have felt when he left the family had repercussions for the rest of her life as she refused to get close to many of her male companions . . .her closest male friends were homosexual . . . and she spurned men who sought sexual intimacy with her.” (15) After her father left, Georgia was sent to live with her aunt who punished her frequently by secluding her in her room and often by slapping Georgia in the face. When she was a teenager she was sent to an all girl’s boarding school. This is where she was finally able to receive art classes and build on her talent. Georgia’s mother did not allow her to be cultured, because it was forever trapped in the ways of the late 1800’s and if you were a lady, it was not worth it (17).
Georgia O’Keefe was brought up in a very untraditional environment and many critics looked at her bleak childhood and made it a reason for her to create sexual paintings (when in fact it just made Georgia a stronger person). When she began creating beautiful artwork in school and was being commended by other teachers and students, she gained an incredible sense of self worth and put her painful childhood in the back of her mind. (19) She grew up to be a very strong, independent person and she did not care if she was judged, as long as she liked who she was. As a result of her father leaving when she was young, she felt that males were not good enough for her and she developed a strong sense of feminism. In fact, for awhile, Georgia explored her sexuality and dated predominantly women for a significant part of her life. This factor did effect her painting, but not in a sexual way. She painted images that were close ups’, allowing you to see deep into them and to be close to them. She yearned to be close to someone but was afraid to be hurt again. Georgia’s non-traditional lifestyle did affect her life, but did not force her to create sexual female images. “It may be more accurate to read her drawings as intimations of a less literal and more profound view of reality.” (Peters 29)
Georgia grew up in a time where people still had little respect for women. A woman’s role was to stay home and be a housekeeper. They had no self-worth until they were married. So, when women started to get jobs just like their husbands or lived their lives without a husband, people were shocked and most looked down upon them. Georgia was untraditional’ in that way. She remained unmarried till late in her womanhood and secluded herself from people as much as possible (Hogrefe 15). She was constantly drawing and painting and was completely content being alone and fully herself. But, one day when she viewed Alfred Stieglitz’s work in a gallery and met him soon after, her closed heart was opened. Georgia could relate his work to hers and felt what he felt. While they were together, Alfred found beauty in Georgia’s body and took many nude photographs of her. (Eisler 53) Critics were astounded and they then, of course, criticized Georgia’s work as being sexual because of the work Alfred had publicized of her body. “He had introduced her to the public through photographs, many of which were intensely erotic, and then transferred this sexual identity to her paintings”. (The American Century Art and Culture 203) Many people also looked down on her because Alfred and Georgia were living together, but were not married. This was not traditional in this time and the fact that she was rebelling against society in this way only added to the criticism of her artwork. Her unique lifestyle convinced critics that her artwork must be shameful just like the way she lived her life. But her artwork was “not only intrinsically American but very clearly the products of female sensibility, not sexual at all.” (Hughes 393)
Besides her untraditional lifestyle and cultural prejudice, Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork was also misinterpreted because of gender bias art criticism. The art critics who denounced Georgia’s art were strictly men. Women at this time did not have the stature in society to critique art and be listened to. Most critics assumed that a woman that has a unique outlook and definite ideas about realizing her vision through her artwork should not cross the boundary into an exclusive status reserved only for men. These male critics ripped her apart, even after she denied that her work was based on sexuality. But the critics of her artwork were not only outsiders. Her husband also felt that Georgia’s artwork expressed sexual imagery. He described her work as “the pure expression of womanhood – understood as Nature and Womb . . .her artwork reveals the intimacies of love’s juncture, with the purity and the absence of shame that lovers feel in their meeting.” (Haskell 203) Her work was pure and beautiful and did express intense emotion, but it was not sexual and vulgar in the way some critics described it. And just because she was a woman, who were true minorities in the art world at this time, her work was severely criticized because she was different. “O’Keefe was O’Keefe, the diva of independence; everything she made was by self-definition extraordinary, and God help the male chauvinist pig who suggested that there might have been some lack of quality in her work . . . “. (Hughes 391)
After Georgia O’Keefe heard of these numerous critiques of her artwork as being too sexual and provocative, she denied these comments completely. She felt that she created these works to show what flowers, landscapes, etc. looked like to her and she wanted her paintings to touch others in the same way they touched her (Rubinstein 207). She painted what she felt; she didn’t paint with some perverted hidden meaning. Georgia’s artwork was misinterpreted in many ways, but it was not sexual.
Critics felt that O’Keefe’s paintings had a sexual theme and used her uncommon life, gender, and many other factors to support their criticism. But the true meaning of the painting is not what some arrogant art critic has to say about it, but how the artist interprets it herself and what the artist meant her audience to see and feel. Georgia explains her works by saying,
“A flower is relatively small . . . and in a way nobody really sees a flower . . . So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see . . . but I’ll paint it big so people will be surprised into taking time to look at it. Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see in a flower – and I don’t.” (Barlow 207)
The only person’s opinion that matters in this situation is the opinion of the creator. Georgia saw a flower as a tiny, beautiful wonder that she wanted the world to see up close. But instead of the world admiring the flower for what it truly was, people changed Georgia’s flowers into an obscenity. When an artist like Georgia has a strong sense of self, and because she is not ashamed of the life she led, we should believe her without question. She has no reason to hide the true meaning. If her flowers’ had hidden sexual meaning, she would not be afraid to tell us. There is nothing at stake for her; she lived her whole life openly. Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork was different, daring, and fresh, but it was not sexual. ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Eisler, Benita. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance. New York: Double Day, 1991.
This book talks about O’Keeffe and her relationship with her husband and their influences on each other’s art careers. Georgia was 24 years younger than Stieglitz was, but their meeting changed both of their lives for the better from that point on. Alfred used any means he could to promote her painting and became the best dealer Georgia could have imagined. This book also reveals Georgia’s romantic relationships with men as well as women. The most interesting and useful piece of information in this book is about the wild relationship quartet Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were entangled in before they even became involved with each other. Georgia had a relationship with Alfred’s protege Paul Strand, and they both had relationships with Strand’s estranged wife, Rebecca.
Fabre, Genevieve. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP,
I did not realize O’Keeffe was considered a part of the Harlem Renaissance until I read this book. It talks about how her art was a big influence on many Harlem Renaissance artists including Eugene O’Neill and James Joyce. Georgia was also romantically involved with many artists of the Harlem Renaissance time, like Sherwood Anderson and Hart Crane. This also talks about her influence on the women’s art movement during this period and how her strong will and security in her gender kept her art alive, despite all of the criticism.
Grubb, Nancy. Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move Into the Mainstream, 1970-85. New
York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
In order to truly understand the talent Georgia possessed, you must first see her works up close and personal. This book does not say a lot about Georgia, but many of her famous works are exhibited in large, color photographs. Paintings such as “Jack and the Pulpit”, “Morning Glory with Black”, etc. are displayed as well as other artists work that painted by Georgia’s example such as Mary Lucier and Jennifer Bartlett.
Hogrefe, Jeffrey. O’Keeffe: The Life of an American Legend. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.
This book talks about the life of Georgia O’Keeffe and goes into interesting detail about her life as an artist as well as her life before she truly became one. It also talks about the many types of criticism her art received throughout her career, which I am very interested in writing about, especially the sexual connotations her paintings of flowers receive. This author also writes about her relationship with her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and how they influenced each other in their art. Not only did she help form and shape his ideas, but she also posed for him and Georgia herself became a big part of his photography career.
Munro, Eleanor. Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1979.
Georgia had a unique style in her works, and focused mostly on outdoor landscapes, objects, etc. This book goes into her artistic style and technique. Her works were dependent on the strange angles and perspectives her works possessed. For example, her paintings of flowers were extreme close ups. She felt that in order to capture the true essence of a flower you needed to be able to see it up close for a more personal, intimate effect. To examine something as simple as a flower up close, you only then realize the extreme complexity that makes such an inconsequential thing so beautiful.
Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper ; Row Publishers, 1989.
This book goes through Georgia’s life in detail. I found a lot of personal quotes in this book that Georgia said about her work and the criticism it received that really caught my eye. She was very opinionated about her art, but at the same time, she could care less about what any art critic had to say about it. Art critics at the time of her career’s peak were predominantly male and this book expresses the fact that male chauvinism was a huge impact on the criticism of her work. This book also goes into the impression her constant change in her surroundings had on her work. Georgia her constant change in her surroundings had on her work. Georgia lived in several different parts of America, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona, California, New York, etc. and with each move, her style change and reflected this new place.