At Large  December 5, 2018  Karen Chernick

A New Origin Story for Georgia O’Keeffe

Before her big break in New York, Georgia O'Keeffe was getting invaluable lessons and inspiration at the University of Virginia.
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (Law Building - University of Virginia), Scrapbook of UVA, 1912-1914. Watercolor on paper, 9 x 11 7/8 inches. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

The scripted origin story of American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe usually goes something like this: photographer and modern art gallerist Alfred Stieglitz saw her abstract charcoal drawings on New Year’s Eve of 1915 and immediately admired their radical quality. “Finally, a woman on paper!” he famously exclaimed. “They’re the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered [my gallery] in a long while.” A few months later he exhibited ten of the drawings at 291, his avant-garde midtown Manhattan gallery, in a debut that was a surefire path to art world stardom.

Courtesy Fralin Museum of Art

Unknown photographer, Georgia O’Keeffe at University of Virginia, circa 1912-1914.

That chain of events surely happened, but pinpointing O’Keeffe’s genesis at that particular moment ignores her arduous journey learning to translate the real-life objects she observed into a sensuously abstract language of shapes and forms. “There’s nothing less real than realism,” O’Keeffe is often quoted as saying, but how she got there is a skipped-over part of her story. That chapter began far removed from New York and Stieglitz (her future husband), in the historic and mountainous surroundings of Charlottesville, Virginia.

A new exhibition at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia–where O’Keeffe spent five summers between 1912 and 1916, first as a student and then as a teaching assistant–hopes to claim its campus as a major starting point in the painter’s modernist trajectory. Unexpected O’Keeffe: The Virginia Watercolors and Later Paintings displays–for the first time outside of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe–watercolors and oil paintings created during her summers there that ultimately culminated in the abstract charcoal drawings that Stieglitz so admired.

“We have an opportunity here to begin to tell that story,” says Elizabeth Hutton Turner, a modern art professor at the University of Virginia and co-organizer of the current exhibition. “We picked this new beginning.”

Family first brought a 24-year-old O’Keeffe to Charlottesville. After moving several times throughout Georgia’s childhood, the O’Keeffe family settled in a brick Victorian home at 1212 Wertland Street, which was a short walk from the University of Virginia. They made ends meet by renting rooms to local students (and the house, which still stands and has since been divided into apartments, continues to be a popular student rental).

© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (Ducks), Scrapbook of U of V, 1912-1916. Watercolor and graphite on paper.

While living there with her family during the summer of 1912, O’Keeffe’s sister Ida (who was also a painter and is now receiving her first major exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art) convinced Georgia to enroll with her in summer classes. O’Keeffe reluctantly agreed, and ended up taking an art course with Alon Bement, who made some key recommendations. “That man Bement gave me some very good advice,” O’Keeffe later told a reporter, towards the end of her life. “He told me things to see and do, and he was very helpful.”

Bement urged her to read Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s major modern art treatise, On the Spiritual in Art (1911), which advocated for the expressive power of non-objective (or abstract) forms and color in painting. “If Bement had not recommended Kandinsky to her, which she later reads twice in 1915, she might not have started to think more adventurously about her abstraction,” explains Nancy Scott, an art history professor at Brandeis University and author of a recent biography, Georgia O’Keeffe (2015).

He also encouraged her to read Compositions (1899) by Arthur Wesley Dow, one of his colleagues at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dow, who had traveled the world and incorporated Asian art philosophies into his practice, emphasized the importance of a ‘trinity of power’ of line, color, and notan (the balance of light and dark). In 1914 O’Keeffe purposefully studied directly under Dow in New York, and she would later credit him with showing her a new path towards modernism. “It was Arthur Dow who affected my start, who helped me find something of my own,” she said.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (Rotunda - University of Virginia)
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (Rotunda - University of Virginia), Scrapbook of U of V, 1912-1914. Watercolor on paper.

Georgia O'Keeffe. Untitled (West Lawn - University of Virginia)
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe. Untitled (West Lawn - University of Virginia), Scrapbook of U of V, 1911. Watercolor on paper.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (West Lawn - University of Virginia)
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (West Lawn - University of Virginia), Scrapbook of U of V, 1912-1914. Watercolor on paper.

“The narrative for so long has been that O’Keeffe discovered Dow at Columbia,” explains Matthew McLendon, director of the Fralin Museum of Art and exhibition co-organizer. “But the reason she got to Columbia and knew about Dow in the first place was being exposed to his radical theories of art education here at the University of Virginia.”

© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Inside the Tent While at U. of Virginia, 1916. Oil on Canvas.

New York had its galleries, fellow artists, and opportunities for study, but summers in Charlottesville had their advantages, too. Her isolation from the art world metropolis gave her a chance to absorb the lessons of Kandinsky and Dow in peace, with time to reflect upon her own work. She was also inspired by the natural surroundings, such as the mountains just outside Charlottesville, and ventured out into nature often. “Her abstraction in  landscape has mostly to do with her love of hiking,” Scott notes, “which she called ‘tramping.’”

In one of the most radical works in the current exhibition, Inside the Tent While at U. of Virginia (1916), O’Keeffe painted the triangular doorway of her tent on one of these treks. Without reading the wall label, the oil painting might look completely non-representational. “The interior of the tent is very much pushing up against abstraction,” McLendon notes. “You’d be hard pressed to know the subject matter without the title. It really is a fascinating exploration of line and form and color, and how they work together to present this overall push towards abstraction.”

© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Anything, 1916. Oil on Board.

O’Keeffe’s time in Charlottesville enabled her to fill her head–and her sketchbooks–with new ideas. “Did you ever have something to say and feel as if the whole side of the wall wouldn’t be big enough to say it on and then sit down on the floor and try to get it on to a piece of charcoal paper,” O’Keeffe asked her friend and former Teachers College classmate, Anita Pollitzer, in a letter in December of 1915. A few days later, she mailed some of her abstract charcoal drawings to Pollitzer in a paper tube; her friend, in turn, immediately showed them to Stieglitz (against O’Keeffe’s wishes).

And there we resume the much-repeated tale of O’Keeffe’s meteoric rise. “Here at the University, with these classes, she was given exercises and a way of awakening herself to her own vocabulary,” Turner says. “It was after the practice of this, over the course of five years, that she came to those charcoals. And then we can connect with the story where Alfred Stieglitz tells the world that this is the first woman on paper, and so on.”

Rewinding the beginning of O’Keeffe’s story a few years back showcases her search, and a period of uncertainty when it was unclear whether she would spend her life as an art teacher or take the steps that ultimately made her a pioneering abstract force in American modernism. Left in the gray area of O’Keeffe’s biography for years, Unexpected O’Keeffe hopes to take part in highlighting the artist’s Virginia years.

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

Related Stories