Discover more from Introvert UpThink
An Introvert as Mythic Artist
Was American painter and introvert Georgia O’Keeffe – renowned during most of her long lifetime – as aloof from her public image as she appeared to be?
When you start reading about American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), certain adjectives come up again and again: “enigmatic,” “elusive,” “secretive” and “austere.” From such a reputation, we might guess that O’Keeffe held herself aloof from the publicity machines that foster an image and fan the flames of fame – and that she cultivated remoteness in her personal life, too.
The truth is more complex and interesting. An introvert, she definitely valued independence, authenticity and the serenity of solitude. She also preferred that her striking art work – including sinuous, warmly colored landscapes, stark animal skulls and sensuous flowers depicted up close – speak for itself. But in some respects she herself fed the mystique of Georgia O’Keeffe as an iconic mystery.
O’Keeffe grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the oldest girl in a family of seven children. Her mother believed in arts education and arranged for music and drawing lessons for the kids, even though the family wasn’t rich. A close friend who engineered O’Keeffe’s first big break as an artist characterized her as “a solitary person, with terrific powers of concentration; as direct as an arrow and hugely independent.” Her big break consisted of ten abstract charcoal drawings by O’Keeffe being included in a 1916 group exhibition in the New York City gallery of Alfred Stieglitz. Six months later Stieglitz, a prominent photographer as well as art promoter, mounted a solo show of O’Keeffe’s charcoals, watercolors and oil paintings.
The charcoals that so impressed Stieglitz had been created during a period of withdrawal from friends, relatives and society. In her autobiography O’Keeffe noted, “I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ This was one of the best times of my life. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own unknown – no one to satisfy but myself.”
Awestruck by O’Keeffe’s talent and mesmerized by her glowing beauty, Stieglitz became not only her art dealer but also her lover in a push-and-pull relationship that helped propel O’Keeffe to fame but also colored her reception in ways that O’Keeffe later fought against. Twenty-three years her senior and married to someone else for the first eight years of their relationship, Stieglitz was a forceful, enthusiastic talker who had mastered the knack of stoking public interest in avant-garde or stylistically distinctive art.
In a 1931 exhibition, Stieglitz juxtaposed O’Keeffe’s paintings with a selection of the hundreds of nude photos he had taken of her, leading critics to interpret her large, close-up flower paintings sexually, as extravagantly hued images of female genitalia. Although she vehemently disavowed that interpretation, Stieglitz encouraged critics to view her work as erotic in intent, rather than as forms of nature transmuted into abstract images. To this day, Stieglitz’s construal has received more attention than O’Keeffe’s own stance:
“Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.”
Stieglitz felt a close bond with his family of origin, and he resisted traveling anywhere outside of New York City except to his family’s compound upstate at Lake George. Feeling smothered and unable to paint among Stieglitz’s klatch of outgoing relatives, O’Keeffe would escape periodically to the high desert of New Mexico. Alone, she communed with the hills and imaginatively recorded their shapes and spiritual aura in paintings. After Stieglitz died in 1946, she permanently made New Mexico her home. O’Keeffe then cooperated in the image of her as an artistic iconoclast hiding out in the desert.
First, despite her fame growing year after year, she rarely gave interviews, and when she did agree to media coverage she offered little in the way of personal perspectives about her feelings and private life. Introverts are particularly vulnerable to being misunderstood because of our natural reticence and the temptation others feel to project their own attitudes into that unfilled space.
In O’Keeffe’s case, the close friend who had introduced Alfred Stieglitz to her work undertook the writing of a book-length portrait of O’Keeffe only to have the artist gently beseech her not to publish it. “You have written your dream picture of me. I am not that way at all,” O’Keeffe wrote her. But she chose not to put much effort into verbal explanations of the way she did see herself.
Second, O’Keeffe’s unconventional clothing choices conveyed the sense of someone determined to come across as different. Generally she wore black and white outfits, flowing and loose, that established a signature look with no relationship to fashions, past or present. As far as I can tell, she never used makeup. Her appearance deliberately telegraphed individuality and a defiance of social norms.
Third, she maintained a distance from the “isms” in the art world, forcing critics and the public to define her as a force unto herself. Instead of encountering her in the category of a movement, people had to figure out how to understand her distinctive work on their own.
The remoteness of New Mexico and the popular association of deserts with hermits and ascetics reinforced these individualistic elements. The image of monk-like retirement suited her just fine, even though in fact O’Keeffe employed several servants and often had artist friends, neighbors and nuclear scientists from Los Alamos over for lunch or dinner.