Museum  August 4, 2023  Dian Parker

Georgia O'Keeffe's Early Works Reveal Her Greatness

© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star No.III, 1917. Watercolor on paper mounted on board. 8 7/8 x 11 7/8″ (22.7 x 30.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Straus Fund, 1958. 

“When one begins to wander around in one’s own thoughts and half-thoughts what one sees is often surprising…. When we draw we try to make rhythms running over the surface.” —Georgia O’Keeffe

In 1915 when Georgia O’Keeffe was 23, she realized that everything she’d been taught in art school was of little value to her. Even though she had learned how to use art materials as a language, she had not found her own voice. She wanted to strip away what she’d been taught and start over. It was then that she wrote to her friend, Anita Pollitzer: “I began using charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white.” It was eight months later when she first added a color: blue.

© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Train at Night in the Desert, 1916. Watercolor and pencil on paper. 11 7/8 x 8 7/8″ (30.3 x 22.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired with matching funds from the Committee on Drawings and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1979. 

Without O’Keeffe’s knowing, Pollitzer sent sixteen of these drawings to the famous photographer and impresario of modern art, Alfred Stieglitz. A few months later he included ten in a group show in New York City in his gallery 291. He felt her charcoal drawings were an expression of female intuition. O’Keeffe was furious that he had exhibited the work without her permission. The rest, as they say, is history. Stieglitz introduced O’Keeffe to the world, they fell in love and married, and she became the most famous and celebrated woman artist of the twentieth century.

Her legacy is the ever popular, up-close and colorful flower paintings. As sensational as these are and certainly evocative—male critics found them to be sexual, an interpretation that she refuted—her innovation and profound influence are her early drawings, watercolors, and pastels. Here we see a young artist making work that was radical and new, in a language all her own. The work is spirited, original, mysterious, and exciting. Speaking about these early drawings and watercolors in 1969, on the cusp of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, O'Keeffe told her good friend, Doris Bry, the co-curator of the 1970 retrospective, “We don’t really need to have the show, I never did any better.”

At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), through August 12, 2023, is a series of the artist’s works on paper: Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time. The exhibition features 120 charcoal, watercolor, pastel, and graphite works O’Keeffe created over a forty-year time span, beginning with the 1916 charcoal drawings that Stieglitz first exhibited.

© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Lines X, 1916. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 25 × 19″ (63.5 × 48.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1969.

To see these artworks is to visit O’Keeffe anew, as if for the first time. Absent are the images of the desert and its bleached bones, and her magnified flowers in brilliant color. The works at MoMA are exemplary. No. 12 Special, and the other charcoals on paper from 1916, are spare paintings. They're rhythmic and evocative with clean lines and spirals, slight shadings, and energetic movement—and confident strokes, as if executed in one deliberate sweep. There is no fuss, no excess. It feels as if these works came from the subconscious and therefore speak a universal language. We recognize these images, which may be why they resonate.

Also in 1916, O’Keeffe painted Blue Lines X, a watercolor-and-pencil-on-paper work. When she was 87, she talked about this painting. “Along the way I had probably looked very carefully at Chinese and Japanese paintings and calligraphy before I got to the Blue Lines. I had practiced a good deal with the watercolor brush, but I considered it impossible for me to have the fluency developed by the Orientals who always wrote with the brush.” First done with charcoal, and then six more times with black watercolor, she said, “… before I got this painting with blue watercolor that seemed right.” 

© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Hill No. II, 1916. Watercolor on paper, 8 7/8 × 11 15/16″ (22.5 × 30.3 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. John B. Chewning.
 

The eight watercolor versions of Evening Star are examples of her observations of nature with its continual transformation. The Evening Star series feels as if the star was moving to an implosion; either its death or birth. In the watercolor Blue Hill II from 1916, O’Keeffe pooled her wet paper with cerulean blue; abstract yet evoking a light-filled landscape.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star, 1917. Watercolor on paper.
© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star, 1917. Watercolor on paper. 13 3/8 x 17 11/16” (34 x 45 cm). Yale University Art Gallery. The John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Fund, the Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund, and Gifts of Friends in Honor of Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., B.A. 1960. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. No. 12 Special, 1916. Charcoal on paper.
© 2022 The Museum of Modern Art / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. No. 12 Special, 1916. Charcoal on paper. 24 x 19″ (61 x 48.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 1995. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Lines X, 1916.
© 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Lines X, 1916. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 25 × 19″ (63.5 × 48.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1969. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. No. 8 – Special (Drawing No. 8), 1916.
© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. No. 8 – Special (Drawing No. 8), 1916. Charcoal on paper. Sheet (Irregular): 24 1/2 × 18 7/8in. (62.2 × 47.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund. © 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star No.III, 1917.
© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star No.III, 1917. Watercolor on paper mounted on board. 8 7/8 x 11 7/8″ (22.7 x 30.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Straus Fund, 1958. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star No. II, 1917.
© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star No. II, 1917. Watercolor on paper. 8 3/4 × 12″ (22.2 × 30.5 cm). Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photography by Dwight Primiano. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. Special No.39, 1919.
© 2022 The Museum of Modern Art / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Special No.39, 1919. Charcoal on paper. 19 5/8 x 12 3/4″ (49.8 x 32.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 1995. © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Hill No. II, 1916.
© 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue Hill No. II, 1916. Watercolor on paper, 8 7/8 × 11 15/16″ (22.5 × 30.3 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. John B. Chewning. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. Train at Night in the Desert, 1916.
© 2022 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Train at Night in the Desert, 1916. Watercolor and pencil on paper. 11 7/8 x 8 7/8″ (30.3 x 22.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired with matching funds from the Committee on Drawings and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1979. 

Georgia O’Keeffe. Over Blue, 1918.
© 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O’Keeffe. Over Blue, 1918. Pastel on paper. 28 × 22″ (71.1 × 55.9 cm). Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Bequest of Anne G. Whitman. © 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the exhibition, To See Takes Time, we are gifted the opportunity to see a young artist set free by her own indomitable volition, which she certainly exemplified throughout her long life; she died at the age of 98. She was her own person; embracing Manhattan, building a home and life, alone, in the desert of New Mexico, designing her own clothes, then turning to ceramics when she lost her eyesight. 

She wrote in the last decade of her life about making the 1915-1916 charcoals and watercolors: “This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing—no one interested—no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.” 

O’Keeffe found her voice at 23, choosing to break free from her academic education. Stieglitz found O’Keeffe that same year and made her famous among an art world of men. The work from this time shows a singular artist; courageous, innovative, and powerful. Her later work appealed to the masses. This early work reveals her greatness.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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