Georgia O’Keeffe: In Her Own Words

A blockbuster exhibit, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, has opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art this month, and with it the first-time publication of steamy love letters between O’Keeffe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the well-known photographer.

The letters had been sealed for 20 years, but now the catalogue accompanying the show includes 22 of the emotional treatises, along with images of O’Keeffe’s sensuous, often joyous depictions of flowers. Excerpts from 10 of O’Keeffe’s letters were also posted on The Daily Beast a few days ago. The letters date from 1916 to the 1940s, when the artist wrote to Stieglitz in New York City from her permanent home in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

For anyone who thought the recent biopic Georgia O’Keeffe, which aired on Lifetime Sept. 19, seemed a bit superficial and overwrought, the letters shed additional light on the artist and her complicated relationship with Stieglitz. He was portrayed in the biopic as a self-absorbed, cruel philanderer, but also as the artist’s biggest promoter.
We often think of O’Keeffe as a leathery skinned, stoic, independent woman of the West, not the willing participant in a relationship of “enraged intimacy,” as one critic dubbed the duo’s stormy union. Nor do we think of this art icon as a mushy school girl smitten with a man twice her age. But in a 1916 letter, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz: “I don’t know if its woman or little girl—I am mostly both. I want to put my arms round you—kiss you—let you kiss me.” (Punctuation and spelling are O’Keeffe’s.) By 1934 the letters turn bleaker, with painful references to his affairs. The correspondence coupled with the exhibition should offer O’Keeffe aficionados a deeper look into the personal life of the legendary painter—a key figure in 20th century art and the only American female artist with a museum dedicated to her work.

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