March is Women’s History Month

Two large flowers: a pink hibiscus above a white plumeria, with other yellow petals behind the plumeria and a blue background above the hibiscus. Overall, a bright pastel compostion.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Same Rose and Julie Walters, 2004.30.6

By Emily B.

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a closer look at the “Mother of American Modernism,” Georgia O’Keeffe. One of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, O’Keeffe is best known for her large-scale paintings of flowers.

O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1887, the second of seven children. By age 10, O’Keeffe decided she would be an artist. Her big break came in 1916 when, unbeknownst to her, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz presented her art in New York City. This marked the beginning of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s tumultuous relationship. O’Keeffe would soon move to New York and become Stieglitz’s muse, appearing in hundreds of his photographs. The pair would go on to marry, following an intense affair.

O’Keeffe’s marriage to Stieglitz, who was 23 years her senior, was far from perfect. Though Stieglitz provided O’Keeffe with studio space and connections in the art world, there was a major power imbalance and he was not faithful. His long-term affair with another photographer took a toll on O’Keeffe’s mental health. Despite this, the pair remained married until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
In the 1920s, O’Keefe began creating large-form flower paintings. Almost immediately, male art critics began to assert that the “essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures.” While her husband promoted and capitalized off these remarks, O’Keeffe was not comfortable with the claims. She said, “…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.”

O’Keeffe’s artistry was highly sought after. In 1938, she was sent to Hawaii on an all-expenses paid trip, where she was meant to produce a pineapple painting for an advertisement campaign. After nine weeks in Hawaii, O’Keefe had the beginnings of many beautiful works depicting Hawaii and its flora, but there was nary a pineapple painting. She would not complete the contracted pineapple painting until the fruit was shipped to her in New York City.

Through her career, O’Keeffe would befriend other artistic greats. O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams had a friendship spanning 50 years, no doubt bonding over their deep passion for the natural world. O’Keeffe befriended Frida Kahlo in 1931 and there is evidence to suggest they perhaps were romantically involved.

Throughout her life, Georgia’s passion for art never wavered. Even as she grew frail and her eyesight began to deteriorate, continued painting with assistance and even learned to work with clay. O’Keeffe’s appreciation for nature is timeless and is surely why she has remained one of the most beloved American artists.

Artwork by Georgia O’Keeffe and her artist friends is available to borrow from the Art Education Collection at the Central and Glenwood branches.

Emily is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch. She enjoys puzzling, reading, listening to music, and re-watching old seasons of Survivor. 

Selected Women’s History Month Classes

Creating the Legacy
For adults. Register here.
In the world of codes and ciphers, women have always played a role. Throughout American history, women have provided vital information to military leaders, searched for enemy secrets, and pioneered new scientific fields. Learn about the contributions and talents women have brought to cryptology. Presented by Jennifer Wilcox, Director of Education for the National Cryptologic Museum.
Sat, Mar 11; 3 – 4 pm
Savage Branch

Forgotten Women Writers of the 17th Century and Beyond
For adults. Register here.
Women’s History Month provides the perfect time to recognize that for every Austen, Dickinson, and Bronte, another unheard-of author lived who was every bit as good! Discover new-to-you women authors to add to your To Be Read list.
Wed, Mar 15; 7 – 8 pm
Central Branch

Women’s History Month Button Making
For all ages; under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Register here.
Votes for Women! Celebrate the historical significance of buttons in the women’s suffrage movement by making one. Design your own or use a template featuring historical women’s suffrage slogans and important women throughout history.
Wed, Mar 22; 7 – 8 pm       
Central Branch

Amazing Women: How Did They Build That?
Ages 6-10, 45 minutes. Ticketed; free tickets available in branch 15 mins before class.
Learn about artist/architects Maya Lin and Zaha Hadid, the innovative structures they created, and how they stay up. Design and build structures with various materials.
Fri, Mar 31; 2 – 2:45 pm
Central Branch

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