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The Strange and Tragic Love Life of Georgia O’Keeffe

People | November 8, 2018

American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) stands at an easel outdoors, adjusting a canvas from her 'Pelvis Series- Red With Yellow,' Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)

Painter Georgia O’Keeffe has been called the ‘Mother of American Modernism’, and certainly, her paintings are recognized worldwide. Her body of work spans much more than the detailed flowers and desert scenes of the American southwest that she has become known for. In her 98 years on earth, she was a prolific artist and a superstar in the art community. In her personal life, however, O’Keeffe’s artistic passion often overshadowed her relationships and she preferred to hide in the solitude of her paints. 

O’Keeffe Wanted to be Her Own Person…and Her Own Artist

In the early 1900s, Georgia O’Keeffe studied art at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York, but she found the instructions to be restricting. Instead of painting exact replicates of the scenes she saw, she wanted to paint her own interpretation of them, much to the displeasure of her teachers. She left school and taught for several years while refining and perfecting her own artistic style. While chair of the art department at West Texas State Normal College, she painted a series of watercolors of the sunrises and sunsets in a nearby canyon. The vivid colors and shapes in her paintings were unique and caught the attention of a New York gallery owner and art promoter, Alfred Stieglitz. 

O’Keeffe Went From Stieglitz’s Nude Muse to Mistress to Wife

When Alfred Stieglitz invited to O’Keeffe to exhibit her work at his gallery, he was more than twenty years older than the young artist and married. Stieglitz was inspired by O’Keeffe, as a person and as an artist. A well-known photographer, Stieglitz asked O’Keeffe to pose for him. She appeared in over 300 nude photos taken by Stieglitz and the images created a stir of controversy in the New York art community of the time. The relationship progresses and O’Keeffe became Stieglitz’s mistress for a number of years. When he finally divorced his wife, he and O’Keeffe married, but the marriage was a rocky one from the start. 

Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater

Although the passion and excitement of their affair faded after they married, O’Keeffe was still distraught upon learning that her husband was having an affair with photographer and art advocate, Dorothy Norman. O’Keeffe sought treatment for depression and, rather than stand witness to her husband’s affair, she began spending time in New Mexico where she was inspired by the brilliant landscape. 

O’Keeffe Had At Least Two Same-Sex Affairs

In 1929, O’Keeffe took a train to Santa Fe with her friend, Rebecca Strand, known as Beck. Both women were invited to New Mexico to be the guests of a wealthy art patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan, who wanted to see the artists capture the scenery around Taos. During this time, O’Keeffe had affairs with both Beck and Mabel, but the love she found was for the land and culture of the Southwest. 

O’Keeffe Made New Mexico Her Home

The artist permanently moved to the Southwest, setting up a studio at Ghost Ranch. In addition to painting the countryside, O’Keeffe painted her signature flowers. Art critics still to this day interpret her flower paintings to be depictions of the female anatomy…which created quite a stir at the time. But O’Keeffe claims that her intention was merely to paint the supreme beauty of the flower and those suggestions that she was hiding images of genitalia in her art were wrong. She coyly commented that people were seeing what they wanted to see in her art. 

Georgia O'Keeffe with Juan Hamilton

In Her 80s, O’Keeffe Had a Boy Toy

As a famous, yet somewhat reclusive artist in her 80s, O’Keeffe hired a 27-year old artist and handyman, Juan Hamilton in 1973. Hamilton’s job was to help O’Keeffe with her art projects and to assist the now-feeble woman with her household chores. The two became close friends and confidants and soon Hamilton joined O’Keeffe on a trip to Europe. Rumors persisted that the two were lovers and O’Keeffe encountered her share of critics and supporters of her lifestyle. Many people assumed that Hamilton was a gold digger after O’Keefe’s money, but upon her death, Hamilton donated everything she had given him to her estate. 

Georgia O’Keeffe Redefined American Art and Became an Icon

The American Modernism movement, which O’Keeffe helped to launch, inspired many artists of the twentieth century. The paintings done by O’Keeffe, particularly the ones showing Southwest desert scenes and her iconic flowers, have become symbols of Americana and helped to elevate Georgia O’Keeffe to the status of one of America’s best known artists. Although it is clear that her true passion was found in her art, O’Keeffe’s love life was one of heartbreak and eyebrow raising. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.