Georgia O'Keeffe (at times spelled O'Keefe) was born at Sun Prairie, in Wisconsin. She was the second of seven siblings. She spent most of her childhood on the family dairy farm, complete with the local animals and rolling hills. For the most part, her aunt, not her mother, was responsible for raising her. O'Keeffe did not care much for her aunt, once referring to her as "the headache of my life."
Most of O'Keeffe's biographers suggest that O'Keeffe was molested by her father Frank. Like other women of her situation, she found a place in her mind to dismiss the sins of her father. Her father was a failed businessman, she and the other children often told others that their father had been ill - a legitimate excuse, they thought, for their embarrassing father.
She was a poor midwestern farm girl who rose to become the first woman artist awarded one-woman shows by major museums. She liked to close the door to her studio, take off her clothes, and get down on her knees on the floor. She'd sketch out broad strokes on paper that became lush, womb-like flowers and stark desertscapes, limned from memory.
In 1901, she entered the Sacred Heart Academy, an art school in Madison, Wisconsin. At school she discovered her blooming talent for artwork. Her art seemed to be the only stable element in O'Keeffe's younger life.
In 1903, the family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where she took art classes for the first time and was recognized as a talented student. Two years later, she studied art at the school of the Art Institute in Chicago. In 1907 she attended the Art Students League in New York.
Early in her career O'Keeffe placed all the art she created in a room to evaluate it. She destroyed them all because she thought each work was derivative of someone else's style. She started all over hoping the art would reflect only herself.
Her father's failure in various business ventures forced O'Keeffe to become a commercial artist for two years to help support her family. Eventually they all moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she attended the summer art classes at the University of Alon Bement, a visiting professor from New York's Columbia University.
From 1912 to 1914 O'Keeffe worked as a teacher of drawing and penmanship in Amarillo, Texas, a rowdy frontier town in the windy Panhandle. She responded strongly to the vast emptiness of the Texas plains. She was perceived by townspeople as unusual because she wore black tailored outfits, pulled her hair straight back, and took long walks by herself.
In the fall of 1915, O'Keeffe taught art at a teachers college in Columbia, South Carolina. In her free time she experimented with charcoal and drew abstract shapes, struggling to find her own style. These early works represented her dreams and visions. She mailed them to her Columbia classmate and good friend Anita Pollitzer, who showed the works to Alfred Stieglitz.
He was impressed, and apparently said that the drawings were the "purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered in a long time". He later exhibited 10 of her drawings at his gallery without O'Keeffe's knowledge or permission. O'Keeffe only learned about it through an acquaintance. Embarrassed, she confronted Stieglitz for the first time, and she demanded that he end the exhibition, to no avail. The public was shocked by what it perceived as the frank sexuality of her shapes; throughout her life, she denied the Freudian symbolism that others saw in her art.
Stieglitz encouraged Georgia to return to New York but by his time he had fallen in love with her. In 1918 she returned to New York and Stieglitz... and became one of the most important American female artists of her time. Thus started the relationship between this married, middle-aged man and this woman young enough to be his daughter began.
When Georgia O'Keeffe had her first major exhibition at the Anderson Galleries in 1923, her work was already well known within the art community. She had by this time become known for her individual and unique style that was closely centered around an emotional and feminine content.
In 1924, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe married after he was granted a divorce by his first wife. Their artistic, professional and personal relationship lasted til his death. She survived him by 40 years.
They both also had relationships with others; he with women, she with both women and men. At least once they were lovers with the same woman. This woman, Rebecca Strand - wife of the famous photographer Paul Strand and an artist in her own right - was friends and lovers with O'Keeffe for many years.
Many have speculated that O'Keeffe had no sexual interest in men - that she was a lesbian. O'Keeffe did marry Alfred Stiegle, but not for love, it was more a business arrangement. For the most part her male friends were either married or homosexual.
Georgia often fell in love with couples, same sex ones or mixed. One of her crushes was on Margery Latimer and Blanche Matthias. Latimer was in New York writing a novel and Matthias had repeatedly urged Stieglitz to introduce her to his wife. They ended up becoming great friends, going out to all-night bohemian parties like those thrown by Carl Van Vechten and his actress wife Fania Marinoff.
In general, O'Keeffe made the most of her new celebrity. Her first choice however was to settle down for peace and quiet. She had never been fond of travelling to art exhibitions or dealing with the selling of her paintings. For O'Keeffe, she enjoyed the quieter and more personal side of an artist's life.
Unlike other artists, O'Keeffe shunned the spotlight, although she did enjoy the fact that people loved her work. She settled down in New Mexico, calling her home Ghost Ranch. It was here, that O'Keeffe would find time to herself. She enjoyed the view of nature, away from the high life of busy society.
Over the years she won many awards and had several major one-person shows at Stieglitz's galleries and major museums. Despite deteriorating eyesight in her later years, she continued to paint and work with clay.
At the age of 84, O'Keeffe began to go blind, eventually retaining only peripheral vision. She did her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. The next year, a handsome young ceramic artist named Juan Hamilton arrived at her door to offer his assistance as a handyman. He became her assistant, companion, and representative for her remaining years.
Through the late 1960s and 1970s, despite her advancing age and blindness, O'Keeffe continued to paint large sky and river paintings, as well as smaller scale still-lifes of rocks and other natural forms.
In 1976, with Juan's encouragement, she published Georgia O'Keeffe, a best-selling collection of her reproductions with text by the artist. She also experimented with sculpture and ceramics, with Juan's assistance.
O'Keeffe received the Medal of Freedom from President Ford in 1977, and a film portrait by Perry Miller Adato on public television made her known to an even wider audience. Her 90th birthday celebration took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. amidst this resurgence of public interest in the woman and the artist.
In 1984, in failing health, O'Keeffe moved to Santa Fe to live with Juan Hamilton and his family. She received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1985.
The next year she died in Santa Fe, at St. Vincent's Hospital, at the age of 98 years, leaving most of her estate to Juan Hamilton, which prompted a legal suit by O'Keeffe's family.
Hamilton eventually agreed to turn over more than two-thirds of his inheritance to the museums and institutions in her original will.
On March 17, 1997, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe, with its first exhibition curated by Juan Hamilton.
It is the first art museum dedicated to the work of an internationally acclaimed woman artist.