Georgia O’Keefe: The Mother of American Modernism

May 10, 2023 | Art Insights

Photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe. (Public Domain)

Written by Chiara Atoyebi

In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States experienced a significant transformation in women’s roles and expectations that were driven by socio-economic and cultural factors. The cultural landscape of the time was rife with stifling gender roles and sexual norms imposed upon women. They were often viewed solely through the lens of wives, mothers, and caretakers. However, the post-World War II era saw an unprecedented shift in gender dynamics, as women took on a more active role in the labor market, responding to the urgent need for workforce expansion during wartime and subsequently the demands of the booming post-war economy. Prior to this period, women’s participation in the labor market was relatively limited, with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1940 standing at $101.4 billion. However, by 1960, following the influx of women into the workforce, the GDP surged to $543.3 billion, illustrating the profound economic impact of this societal change. Coincidentally, a subversive feminist art movement emerged like a beacon of resistance, illuminating an alternative path to female empowerment. Challenging the rigid expectations of women, these audacious artists shattered artistic conventions and dared to defy societal norms through their expressive creations. One of those audacious artists was Georgia O’Keeffe.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Early Life

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, also known as the “Mother of American Modernism,” was a modernist painter born on November 15, 1887, in the farmlands of Prairie Sun, Wisconsin. She was the second of seven children, born to her two dairy farmer parents.  O’Keeffe began her artistic journey early in her childhood, deciding to become an artist at the age of nine. Her remarkable artistic legacy is defined by her striking portrayals of magnified flowers, impressive New York City skyscrapers, and the captivating landscapes of New Mexico. In her lifetime, O’ Keefe painted over 200 pictures of flowers, many of which seemingly displayed strong sexual Freudian overtones that the artist denied throughout her life. 

Georgia O’Keefe (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia, O’Keeffe. Blue and Green Music, 1919-1921.
(Art Institute of Chicago via Public Domain)

O’Keeffe’s art is characterized by her use of vibrant colors, bold lines, and abstract forms. Her paintings of flowers, landscapes, and other natural forms were often zoomed in, focusing on the intricate details of the subject matter. This technique created an almost ethereal quality to her work, making it both beautiful and thought-provoking. Her art also reflected her love for the American Southwest, where she lived for much of her life. Her paintings of the desert landscapes captured the stark beauty of the region, and her images of the natural world conveyed her fascination with the power of nature. O’keeffe found solace in relocating, New Mexico and interacting with nature.

“I know now that most people are so closely concerned with themselves that they are not aware of their own individuality. I can see myself, and it has helped me to say what I want to say—in paint.”

~ Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe’s Winding Path to Success

In 1908, Georgia O’Keeffe secured a scholarship to enroll in the study of still life at Amitola, the Art Students League Outdoor School situated in Lake George, New York. This milestone event marked the inception of her exposure to the practice of plein air painting, which established a crucial personal association with Lake George and its surroundings as the principal subject matter for her artistic expression.

From there she went on to hold various teaching appointments at various secondary schools as well as the University of Virginia. Yet, it was her relationship with feminist artist and women’s rights advocate,  Anita Pollitzer that would put in motion a chain of events that would mark her creative destiny as an artist and activist. In 1916, O’Keefe joined the National Women’s Party (NWP) where Pollitzer was already a dedicated activist and speaker for the movement.


Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. Anita Pollitzer. South Carolina Charleston, ca. 1916. (Photograph, Library of Congress)

That same year, Pollitzer presented a selection of O’Keefe’s abstract drawings to Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 gallery in New York. Stieglitz was deeply impressed by O’Keeffe’s work and conveyed his admiration to her via a written communication, acknowledging the ineffable nature of the emotional response her art elicited. This exchange marked the inception of a frequent correspondence as well as a long and enduring relationship between the two artists. 

Columbia Orchestra, and Harry Spencer. Women’s Rights Meeting. Audio. Library of Congress

Art and Love: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz Correspondence Letters to Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1933.
Manuscript/Mixed Material. Library of Congress.

“I’m getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me,” O’Keeffe writes from Canyon, Texas, on Nov. 4, 1916. ” … Having told you so much of me — more than anyone else I know — could anything else follow but that I should want you — ”

~ Georgia O’Keeffe’s letter to Alfred Stieglitz

The art world has seen many extraordinary collaborations, but few can match the impact and influence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. This iconic couple, a celebrated painter and a pioneering photographer, married in 1924, after Stieglitz’s divorce from his first wife, and forged a union of love and art that shaped the landscape of American modernism and inspired generations of artists to come.