After the emotional overdrive of Hillary’s nomination last week, I’ve been wondering what Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) would think – and feel, and say. One hundred years after the pioneering modern artist got her first group exhibit in New York City, O’Keeffe would likely be saying, “It’s about time.”
Popularly recognized today as the painter of “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932), which several years ago sold for $44.4 million, the record for an artwork by a woman, O’Keeffe came of age as a 20-something art student in New York City in the 1910s, at a time when young bohemians were joyfully ditching tradition in favor of a “living life,” built on modern art and progressive politics, including feminism.
It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy [ . . . ] that all men and women stand equal under the sky. ― Georgia O’Keeffe
In letters she wrote to BFF Anita Pollitzer, a fellow art student and future chairman of the suffragist National Woman’s Party, O’Keeffe revealed herself an eager reader of the most avant-garde books and magazines of the day, including The Forerunner, a monthly journal about women’s issues edited by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In their correspondence, O’Keeffe and Pollitzer shared news and reading lists and artworks. They cheered each other on and, when needed, provided a sympathetic ear. They were fellow travelers on the road to a life of radical self-expression.
But when O’Keeffe emerged as an artist-celebrity in New York in the 1920s, she faced the most excruciatingly sexist criticism, Freudian-faced, that applauded her work but reduced it to the product of her reproductive female body. “O’Keeffe was being a woman,” one critic opined, “and only secondarily an artist.” The fact that her dealer-husband Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited nude photographs of her and eagerly inflamed the woman-as-womb rhetoric didn’t help.
It took O’Keeffe decades to reclaim her image, ultimately positioning herself as that solitary, self-sustaining woman living and painting out in the New Mexico desert. So by the time the gynocentric feminist artists of the 1970s came around to celebrate O’Keeffe for what they saw as her vulvic imagery, she would have none of it.
O’Keeffe had always supported equal rights for women. It may have been the one thing she was never evasive about. In 1944, she urged Eleanor Roosevelt to support the Equal Rights Amendment: “It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy – to my country – and to the world eventually ― that all men and women stand equal under the sky – I wish you could be with us in this fight.”
In Hillary, O’Keeffe might have felt a kinship with another fellow traveller. Both were married to a powerful, larger-than-life man who helped advance her career. Both were betrayed by their husbands. And both decided to stay married – on their own terms, with independent ambitions.
O’Keeffe knew what it meant to suffer the slings and arrows of public judgment, to persevere, to succeed. About Hillary – I daresay she would have approved.
Ann Daly blogs about Georgia O’Keeffe at MyGeorgiaO’Keeffe.com.