Understanding Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were two of the greatest American artists of the first half of the 20th century. Together, they formed a passionate, but deeply complicated couple rich in artistic adventures. With Artsper, let’s uncover more about the duo.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were both Americans. O’Keeffe came from a family of farmers in the Midwest, whereas Stieglitz came from an upper-class Jewish family in New Jersey.
When they met in 1916, she was 29 and he was 52. He was a photographer and gallery owner, already well established in the New York artistic landscape. Stieglitz notably founded the Photo-Secession group, a group of photographers who explore the artistic and documentary possibilities of this new medium. He also founded Camera Works, a photography magazine. Above all, Stieglitz was the creator of Gallery 291, which exhibited European and American avant-garde artists.
It’s through Gallery 291 that Stieglitz met Georgia O’Keeffe. At the time, she was finished with artistic education. In 1916 and against the wishes of O’Keeffe, one of her friends sent a series of abstract charcoal drawings to Alfred Stieglitz and he exhibited them in his gallery. But that was only the beginning of their story…
Sparks fly between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
It was nearly love at first sight for Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O’Keeffe quickly became the muse of the photographer Stieglitz, who took nearly 300 photographs of her from every angle. In many images, her hands form hypnotic and dancing movements. Stiegltiz combines macro images, focused on the grain of her skin, with the wide-frame looks at O’Keeffe. The energy between them is palpable.
Their passionate relationship can be found in their respective works. For Stieglitz, it was the photographs of his muse. For O’Keeffe, it was in her corporeal abstractions of nature. Their passion was also reflected in their letters. “How I was burning to photograph you – the hands – the mouth – & the eyes – and the throat ” writes Stieglitz to O’Keeffe in their almost daily epistolary exchanges. Finally, Stieglitz exposes the shots of O’Keeffe for all to see, fully assuming their relationship.
Stieglitz, who was then married to Emmeline Obermeyer, divorced and married Georgia O’Keeffe in 1924. That was the culminating year of their romantic relationship, both in passion and in artistic exchanges.
The maturity of their love, and of their work
As the years passed, the pair continued to grow in fame, often attributing their successes to their partnership. In previous years, the success of Georgia O’Keeffe has often been associated with the efforts of her husband, but her individual talent and fame is now acknowledged with less misogyny. Stieglitz may have exhibited her drawings in 1916, after having made her his muse and presented her work alongside great artists, however O’Keeffe’s talents were ultimately what shot her to fame. Stieglitz saw represented many famous names in his 291 Gallery, which focused largely on European and American avant-garde painting. On the European side, Stieglitz exhibited Rodin, Picasso, Braque, Cézanne, Matisse, Duchamp, Brancusi. On the American side, he exhibited Charles Demuth, Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and O’Keeffe.
The marriage between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz continued, but tumultuously. In 1929, she discovered New Mexico: its plains and deserts, its empty and wild territories. O’Keeffe, who had grown up on a farm in the Midwest, fell in love. Her work became less inspired by her marriage and returned to her love of wide open spaces. She drew inspiration for her abstractions from the immensity of the wild.
The end of the relationship
The relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz waned into an abusive cycle. He was deeply jealous and feared his wife’s rivalry of his own career. As she aged, Georgia O’Keeffe became fiercely independent and came to resent her husband’s interference in her work and the social life to which she must submit.
Over the years, eager to escape the Stieglitz family estate of Lake George where they spent more and more time, Georgia O’Keeffe made more trips to New Mexico. Although living essentially at a distance, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz remained intertwined and corresponded regularly. They separate lives and artistic research, him in New York and her in New Mexico.
After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, Georgia O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico, where her fame continued to grow, and where she eventually died at age 98, in 1986.
The complexities left behind by Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
Despite the end of their relationship, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz are among the great couples in art history, but they are not the only ones. Several great artistic couples have marked history… Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
It often happens that these couples greatly influence each other in their respective artistic practices. They also experience ups and downs – as any couple does – that affect their production, their success, their health.
But there is a risk in the story we tell. A bias. This consists of reading the work of a woman in the light of the work of her spouse, often more famous and older than her at the time of their meeting. It’s important to note the deeply patriarchal era in which these couples lived. It’s an era that often forced women artists to have to fight to be recognized, an era that we are not out of today.
Too frequently, historians see in artistic couples an unbalanced relationship, where influence is one-way, where help is one-sided. It is not so. All artists draw their influence and success from their environment. And the artistic exchanges are palpable in each of the aforementioned couples. If, nevertheless, women artists benefited from the help of their spouse, let us acknowledge the societal reasoning for this, instead of questioning its legitimacy.
Beyond the relationship of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz will forever remain one of art’s most iconic couples, but the conversation around their dynamic has shifted in modern times. While previously Stieglitz was credited for O’Keeffe’s talents, it’s abundantly clear that O’Keeffe was a driving creative force. For a time, the two certainly looked to one another as muses, but after separating, Georgia O’Keeffe became inspired by the natural landscapes that surrounded her while Stieglitz continued to greatly influence the New York art scene. Georgia O’Keeffe’s fame has continued to grow since her death and she is no longer viewed only in relation to Alfred Stieglitz.
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