Happy Birthday Georgia O’Keeffe

 

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Today we celebrate the life of Georgia O’Keeffe!  She was an American artist, most famous for her abstract paintings of flowers, bones, and natural landscapes. She herself was a force of nature as well, leaving an imprint and legacy not easily forgotten.

Once you experience her artwork — well — flowers will never look the same again!

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Born on November 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia was the second of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers who valued education and encouraged their children to explore various interests. The wide Wisconsin landscape, with its vibrant hollyhocks, lilies, irises and greenery, no doubt influenced the young Georgia.  Artistic talent seemed to run in the family, as two of her grandmothers had been amateur painters.

Georgia attended college at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, quickly climbing to top of her class. Later she studied at New York City’s Art Student’s League. It was in New York that she was first introduced to modern art movements of the early twentieth century. She visited galleries, in particular Gallery 291, founded by photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

Located at 291 5th Avenue, 291 frequently introduced new work of modern European and American artists.

291

It was Alfred Stieglitz who first displayed O’Keeffe’s work — a series of charcoal drawings — at a gallery exhibition in 1916. The unusual drawings were an overnight success. Within two years, Georgia, who had earned her living through teaching, moved to New York City and became part of a group of avant-garde artists.

For a woman, recognition in the male dominated art world was dubious and rare. Nonetheless, Georgia held her own, winning recognition among critics and patrons. She became the highest paid female artist in the US. O’Keeffe, however, never considered herself a ‘feminist’. She wanted to be thought of as simply ‘an artist’ rather than ‘a female artist’.

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Although Alfred Stieglitz was a married man, and twenty three years older than O’Keeffe, the two became lovers. In 1924 Alfred left his wife to marry Georgia.

Like all aspects of his life, Alfred made his new bride into a work of art.

Georgia_OKeeffe 1919

Georgia continued to develop her craft. She began to experiment with perspective, painting close-ups of flowers. The first of these was Petunia No. 2, which was exhibited in 1925, followed by works such as Black Iris (1926) and Oriental Poppies (1928).

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“If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because… the flower is small. So I said to myself –  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.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

I should mention that these are no quaint little blooms, but more like Alice Through the Looking Glass, grow-so-incredibly-high jungle blossoms, painted on canvasses big enough for you to walk into.

For almost a century, art critics have been insisting that O’Keeffe’s flower paintings were meant to resemble female genitalia. Georgia herself vehemently denied this. What do you think?

Georgia O'Keeffe art

“I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

In the 1930’s, Georgia found new inspiration in the American west and Navajo culture when she began to visit New Mexico. She found simple yet sublime beauty in the desert, frequently painting landscapes and animal skulls. Cool, huh?

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Meanwhile, back in New York, Stieglitz had begun to mentor a young photographer named Dorothy Norman. The two developed a close relationship and – you guessed it! The married Stieglitz began an affair with Dorothy. Georgia became jealous and suffered  bouts of depression. In 1933 she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and did not paint for a whole year.  The nervous breakdown was reportedly due to ‘a broken heart’.  (Oh Alfred, you philanderer!)

Her recovery lead her back to New Mexico where she eventually bought property at Ghost Ranch and lived there permanently.  However, she never divorced Stieglitz who remained her one true love.

In his later years, Stieglitz’s health deteriorated. He died of a stroke in 1946 at the age of 82. Georgia was with him when he died and was the executor of his estate.

In 1949, Georgia was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the 1950s and 1960s, she continued to paint and travel the world, finding inspiration in places she visited.  In 1970, a retrospective of her work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

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“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing.  It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis — that we get at the real meaning of things.”  — Georgia O’Keeffe

Unfortunately, as Georgia became older she suffered from macular degeneration and began to lose her eyesight. She painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. However,  she never los her love of art and her desire to create. She still continued to create art in the form of sculpture and writing. Her bestselling autobiography Georgia O’Keeffe was published in 1976.

Georgia died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98.  Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered, as she wished, on the land around Ghost Ranch (perhaps becoming its final ghost?)  The spirit of Ms. O’Keeffe will remain influential forever!

“I have lived on a razor’s edge. So what if you fall off? I’d rather be doing something I wanted to do. I’d walk it again.”  — Georgia O’Keeffe

Happy Birthday Georgia!

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Lizzie and the Pre-Raphaelites

 

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Today, July 25th, marks the birthday of England’s first Victorian supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal.

Over a century before Twiggy hit swinging London, and 150 years before Tyra Banks began her search for America’s Top Model, English beauty Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal was the new face that launched a thousand ships.  She was an artist’s model for a group of cutting-edge painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

‘America’s Top Model’ — a reality show which takes beautiful urchins from mundane backgrounds off the streets and somehow transforms them into stunning supermodels – may actually have a lot in common with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood ( PRB.)

In the mid 19th century a group of young painters decided to defy restrictions, throw caution to the wind and break the ceiling of what they thought had become very boring, regulated and prescription art in England.  They were led by the  rebel stud Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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The PRB left behind stuffy universities to begin their own style. Their new art hearkened back to a more naturalistic pre-industrial time, and resembled Renaissance works popular before the painter Raphael became the accepted standard. (Hence the name Pre-Raphaelite.)

To our post-modern eyes, the PRB paintings might look very staid and classic, but in their own time they were quite shocking. One innovative thing the PRB did was to find their models among common people in the streets. These women were often shop girls or prostitutes. The Brotherhood would transform them into magnificent goddesses.

Elizabeth Siddal was one such model. She was born on July 25, 1829 to working class London parents. In her late teens she took a job in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley.  In 1849 Lizzie was ‘discovered’ by PRB artist Walter Deverall, who was working on a painting to depict Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’.

Deverall needed a model to portray the cross-dressing Viola — in her boy role as Cesario.  Elizabeth apparently had the androgynous beauty that was needed for the role.

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Lizzie was described as: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck, greenish-blue eyes, brilliant complexion and a lavish wealth of coppery golden hair.”

As luck would have it, Deverall’s model for the role of Feste the Fool was fellow painter and notorious bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here is the entire panel, Gabriel as the court jester and Lizzie on the far left.

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When Rossetti and Elizabeth met, sparks flew. Thus began their tumultuous love affair. They became engaged and defied convention by living  together for almost ten years. They finally married in 1860.

Elizabeth became Gabriel’s chief muse. Reportedly, he painted over a thousand portraits of her.  He likened her to Beatrice Portinari, the muse of 13th century writer Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy.)  Dante was also Gabriel’s namesake and he seemed to have recreated their courtly love affair, starring himself as Dante and Lizzie as Beatrice.

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As torrid as their relationship was, Gabriel’s antics and constant affairs with other models apparently made for a not so smooth ride.  Plus, Elizabeth suffered from ill health and eventually became addicted to laudanum.

Nonetheless, they were a fascinating couple!  The PRB were the revolutionaries of Victorian London and their beautiful models were the ‘it girls’ of the day.  Elizabeth was a poet in her own right, and although her poems were never published in her lifetime, I think they are pretty good.

Here is an excerpt, called Dead Love:

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

Perhaps it is a rather revealing version of her relationship with rogue Gabriel…

Elizabeth posed for numerous paintings and eventually began studying art herself, under Gabriel’s tutelage. She produced many sketches and watercolors. Art critic John Ruskin became her patron, and paid her the modest sum of £150 per year for her work. (That is about £12,000 in today’s money. Still, it was a big deal for a woman to have her own income!)

Elizabeth posed for many character portraits, but perhaps her most famous one was Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Here she stars as Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river.

The image is so lifelike, you almost expect to touch her hands or smell the fragrance of her flowers.

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In real life, Elizabeth also committed suicide.

She became pregnant in 1861, but the baby, a girl, was stillborn.  Elizabeth, who also had a long history of depression, then suffered from post-partum and entered a dangerous darkness.  She died of a laudanum overdose on February 11, 1862.

Although coroners deemed her death an accident, reportedly, Lizzie left a suicide note. Gabriel later destroyed it, as he knew killing oneself in Victorian England was both illegal and immoral, and would have brought scandal upon her family.

Here is an excerpt of one of Lizzie’s eerily prophetic poems, called Early Death:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really weird twist!

Gabriel, overcome with grief at his wife’s death, buried in her coffin a book of poems he had written to her.

Seven years later, in 1869, Gabriel became obsessed with the idea of publishing those poems.  He, along with his agent Charles Howell, applied for an order to have Elizabeth’s coffin exhumed.

Gabriel, a heavy drinker, may have really gone off the rails at this point.  Supposedly he was going blind and was no longer able to paint, and therefore looking to write and publish more poetry.

The exhuming of Lizzie’s grave was done (creepily!)  in the dead of night, so as not to draw attention.  Gabriel was not present, but Charles Howell claimed that Elizabeth, lying in the opened coffin, was still well preserved with her beauty in tact!

Also her long red hair had continued to grow, and therefore, Elizabeth’s corpse retained much of her stunning charm!

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(This is how vampire legends got started.  Remember, it was Victorian Times, ripe with Gothic ghost stories of the dormant  undead, and other wild imaginings.)

To be fair, laudanum is known to be a great preservative, and Lizzie had plenty of it in her body.  Also, she was no stranger to alcohol and other formaldehyde-type drugs.  She was a “devoted swallower” of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from diluted arsenic.

Could all these drugs have made for a well preserved Lizzie?  There is a folkloric belief that hair and nails can continue to grow after death.

I cannot help but notice another similarity to Shakespeare’s Ophelia.  Hamlet — who was Ophelia’s lover — jumped into her grave at her burial, unable to let her go.

lizzie ophelia grave

Is truth stranger than fiction?

Whatever one makes of their personal lives, the PRB no doubt left their mark in the art world.  They produced some of the most stunning, radiant and thought-provoking works ever created.

Happy Birthday Lizzie!

The TV series Desperate Romantics was a fictional account of the PRB.  If you want to know more about them (or just be fabulously entertained by Aidan Turner as Gabriel and Amy Manson as Lizzie!)  tune into this episode. Running time is about one hour. Hope you like it! 🙂