Stieglitz and O'Keeffe: A Love Story
How two of the most influential 20th century artists fell for each other
In the beginning
In 1915, Alfred Stieglitz, 51, was an internationally acclaimed photographer as well as a gallerist and dealer. His small gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue—known as “291”—had been putting on a rigorous rotation of shows since 1905. These exhibitions helped to further the appreciation of photography as an art form, as well as introduce the United States to some of the most avant-garde artists from Europe, including Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso. 291 also showcased the work of a number of young progressive American artists including Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove.
Georgia O’Keeffe, 27, the daughter of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, was an ambitious but unknown art teacher in Texas. A friend—Anita Pollitzer—showed some of O’Keeffe’s artworks to Stieglitz, who, in turn, exhibited them. The two struck up a correspondence but wouldn’t meet until a year later in 1916. “Little did I dream that one day she would bring to me drawings that would mean so much to 291 as yours have meant,” Stieglitz wrote to O’Keeffe.
A move to New York
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe met for the first time in 1916 when she visited New York. Their correspondence, following her return home to Texas, became increasingly intense. On June 1, 1917, Stieglitz wrote: “How I wanted to photograph you—the hands—the mouth—& eyes—& the enveloped in black body—the touch of white—& the throat—but I didn’t want to break into your time.”
O’Keeffe’s body became the focus of his artistic work in 1918 after O’Keeffe moved to New York. Soon after her arrival, Stieglitz left his wife, and his unhappy marriage, to live with her.
In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited, alongside others, 45 photographs of O’Keeffe, including several nudes, which created a sensation with the public and critics.
An art star is born
O’Keeffe’s renown grew in the 1920s, in part due to Stieglitz’s promotion—he put on annual shows of her work—and in 1927 (the year this painting was completed), the Brooklyn Museum mounted a retrospective of her work Paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.
At this point, the couple lived on the 30th floor of The Shelton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan (the tallest hotel in the world at the time). The expansive view contributed to O’Keeffe’s interest in painting New York skyscrapers, while Stieglitz found it to be an interesting starting point for his photography.
The couple’s relationship began to show signs of strain—not least because O’Keeffe wanted a child and he didn’t. In 1929, after discovering Stieglitz was having an affair, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico and quickly fell in love with the landscape. Stieglitz was terrified that his wife wouldn’t return after she extended her visit. Now aged 65, he wrote to her from New York: “I am broken.” In his ongoing series, Equivalents, he captured moments that reflected his mental state.
In July 1929, O’Keeffe tried to explain why she stayed away: “There is much life in me—when it was always checked in moving toward you—I realized it would die if it could not move toward something … I chose coming away because here at least I feel good—and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside—and very still—Maybe you will not love me for it—but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you—I hope this letter carries no hurt to you—It is the last thing I want to do in the world.”
Summers in the southwest
From 1929 onward, O’Keeffe spent extended periods in the Southwest. In 1940, she bought a plot of land on her summer retreat, Ghost Ranch.
The landscape became central to her work. In particular, the Pedernal mountain provided inspiration—she painted it almost 30 times: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
A modern marriage
Despite spending long periods apart, the couple’s relationship endured successfully, if unconventionally, until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.