How Georgia O’Keeffe Became Georgia O’Keeffe: An Animated Video Tells the Story

When Geor­gia O’Keeffe first saw the home in Abiquiú, in North­ern New Mex­i­co that she would pur­chase from the Catholic Church in 1945 “the 5,000-square-foot com­pound was in ruins,” writes the Geor­gia O’Keeffe Muse­um. The artist imme­di­ate­ly seized on its poten­tial: “As I climbed and walked about in the ruin,” she remem­bers, “I found a patio with a very pret­ty well house and buck­et to draw up water. It was a good-sized patio with a long wall with a door on one side. That wall with a door in it was some­thing I had to have.”

Des­ig­nat­ed a Nation­al His­toric Land­mark in 1998, the “pueblo-style adobe (mud brick) hacien­da” became one of the most renowned of artists’ hous­es, asso­ci­at­ed as close­ly with O’Keeffe as Fri­da Kahlo’s Blue House is with her work. O’Keeffe moved to the South­west for good in 1949, three years after her hus­band Alfred Stieglitz’s death. Her spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion to the region began with a vis­it to Taos in 1929, and she con­tin­ued to vis­it and paint the area through­out the 30s and 40s.

The sto­ry about her dis­cov­ery of the famous house—photographed hun­dreds of times by her and dozens of others—seems emblem­at­ic of the decades of deci­sive, mature paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy. Her vision seems supreme­ly con­fi­dent and entire­ly sui gener­is—a pas­sion­ate way of see­ing as dis­tinc­tive as van Gogh’s. But like van Gogh, and every oth­er famous artist, O’Keeffe served an appren­tice peri­od, which at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry meant learn­ing clas­si­cal tech­niques. Once in New York, she became known for exper­i­men­tal paint­ings of sky­scrap­ers and her stun­ning abstract flow­ers.

In the TED-Ed les­son above by Iseult Gille­spie, we learn how O’Keeffe turned her ear­ly for­mal train­ing into her first series of abstract draw­ings, in char­coal. These works “defy easy clas­si­fi­ca­tion, sug­gest­ing, but nev­er quite match­ing, any spe­cif­ic nat­ur­al ref­er­ence.” O’Keeffe mailed the draw­ings to a friend in New York, who showed them to Stieglitz, who “became entranced.” Soon after, he arranged her first exhib­it. Her stu­dent days at an end, she moved to New York in 1918 and quick­ly became asso­ci­at­ed with a cir­cle of Amer­i­can Mod­ernists.

She mar­ried Stieglitz, but O’Keeffe’s path would take her away from her hus­band, and from the met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters most asso­ci­at­ed with ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Mod­ernism, and into the her­met­ic desert soli­tude for which she became known—a path the painter Agnes Mar­tin would fol­low decades lat­er. O’Keeffe’s process was that of a desert ascetic—“based on rit­u­al and close obser­va­tion. She paid metic­u­lous atten­tion to small details, and spent hours mix­ing paints to find exact­ly the right col­ors.” She kept track of her blaz­ing palette with hand­made col­or cards.

O’Keeffe’s work has often been reduced to pruri­ent spec­u­la­tion about the resem­blance of her flow­ers to female gen­i­talia, a Freudi­an lens she cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dis­missed: “She resent­ed the male gaze that dom­i­nat­ed the art world and demand­ed her work be respect­ed for its emo­tion­al evo­ca­tion of the nat­ur­al world.” See high-res­o­lu­tion scans of O’Keeffe’s body of work, from the 1900s to the 1980s, at the Geor­gia O’Keeffe Col­lec­tions Online and learn more about her at the Geor­gia O’Keeffe Muse­um Library and Archive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Real Geor­gia O’Keeffe: The Artist Reveals Her­self in Vin­tage Doc­u­men­tary Clips

Geor­gia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art, a Short Doc­u­men­tary on the Painter Nar­rat­ed by Gene Hack­man

Fri­da Kahlo Writes a Per­son­al Let­ter to Geor­gia O’Keeffe After O’Keeffe’s Ner­vous Break­down (1933)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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