Best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes, Georgia O’Keeffe is frequently called the “Mother of American modernism.” By the age of 10, O’Keeffe decided she wanted to be an artist, and at the age of 21 she received her first accolade for her work; the William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot. Just one year after this, however, O’Keeffe gave up the idea of a career as an artist because she felt she would never distinguish herself through the traditions which were the basis of her formal art education. She worked in various commercial and educational capacities for the next ten years.
In 1916, renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz was introduced by a mutual friend to several innovative charcoal drawings which O’Keeffe had made the year prior. He put them on exhibition as soon as he could, and came into frequent communication with O’Keeffe as a result. By 1918, Georgia moved to New York to focus full-time once again on her artwork. It was during her time in New York that O’Keeffe began working predominantly in oils, the medium in which her impressionistic work is most widely recognized.
Also during this time, Stieglitz, with whom O’Keeffe was by now living and deeply in love, organized annual exhibitions of her work, introducing her to many important early American modernists. By the mid-1920s it was O’Keeffe, however, who became known as one of the most important artists of the time. Her work influenced many and was highly regarded by the public as well, as evidenced by the high prices her paintings commanded at sale.
After more than ten years living in New York, O’Keeffe began searching for new inspiration for her artwork. She found it in the rugged landscapes of New Mexico on a summer vacation there in 1929. Throughout the next twenty years she made frequent visits to the state, inspired by its varicolored terrain and rugged way of life. She moved there permanently in 1949 after the death of Stieglitz in 1946. Throughout this period her reputation continued to grow, and she earned numerous commissions from across the country.
Her work was widely respected, and O’Keeffe continued painting until macular degeneration took all but her peripheral eyesight in 1972. In 1977, President Gerald R. Ford presented O’Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American civilians. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. O’Keeffe passed away at the age of 98, widely regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.