LARB is cooking up a storm!

For today only, donate $50 or more and get our limited-edition LARB Tea Towel designed by Mads Gobbo.
Tea Towel

The Intimate Art: Georgia O'Keeffe's Letters

By Nancy BarnesAugust 11, 2011

The Intimate Art: Georgia O'Keeffe's Letters

My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume One, 1915-1933 by Sarah Greenough

AMONG LETTERS BY PROMINENT ARTISTS, annals by American visual artists are rare. Now comes a compelling text — the vibrant, at times frankly sexual and impassioned letters that flowed between modernist painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), so at home in the Southwest with her hair pinned at the nape of her neck, and the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1865-1946), whose somewhat self-centered urbanity flourished in the canyons of New York.

With its selection of 650 letters, the first volume of  My Faraway One covers the period from 1915 through the halcyon years surrounding the couple's marriage in 1924 and the strains that preceded O'Keeffe's trip to New Mexico at the start of the Great Depression. A second volume will present selections from their correspondence until Stieglitz's death.

Stieglitz scholar Sarah Greenough, honoring a request O'Keeffe made of her 30 years ago, has culled and edited the correspondence from the roughly 5,000 letters the pair exchanged until his death. At the request of O'Keeffe, the correspondence was sealed from the public until 2006.

More than anything else, this is an account of a relationship between two highly intelligent and self-aware people. Yet the correspondence also provides a window into the Bloomsbury-like circle that existed amid the early stirrings of modernist art. In the years he ran his storied galleries 291, The Intimate, and The American Place, Stieglitz had seen his mission change from establishing photography as a fine art to marketing new artists broadly. Personages such as the American painters Marsden Hartley and John Marin move in and out of the narrative, as do critics, agents, intellectuals, and distinguished European émigrés.

"For lunch, the New Yorker man joined me to talk about you," writes Stieglitz, who served as O'Keeffe's dealer, in one missive to the artist in May of 1929. "In the meantime," he adds, "people came & wanted to know about prices, about Marins, about O'Keeffes ... [Herbert] Seligmann brought me the four-page [Gaston] Lachaise letter I had dictated. I re-dictated another — "

One December during their courtship, Stieglitz writes, "Towards dusk [Marcel] Duchamp turned up" — this, on a day when Stieglitz's erratic, anarchist assistant Emil Zoler and the modernist Russian-born painter Abraham Walkowitz were also present. Stieglitz writes that he found Duchamp a "very fine simple fellow," adding, "There was not much said — & yet what was said meant very much."

He continues, "And when [Duchamp] was gone & the place was silent — no lights but a gas jet — there was a religious purity pervading all — And it is snowing today. — Silently."

At first, the response by the young O'Keeffe to 291 — so named because of its Fifth Avenue address — and its congregants was enthusiastic. "You enjoyed it — in a way — didn't you — 291 must have been just boiling," she exclaims in 1916 upon receipt of an issue of  Camera Work, the journal Stieglitz published from 1903 to 1917. Eight years before, the journal had contained a statement on Stieglitz's resignation from the Camera Club of New York at the request of its staunchly conservative board of trustees.

Eleven years later, O'Keeffe termed the devotion of the mix of artists and intellectuals such as Lewis Mumford and Hart Crane who gathered for the lively discussions at Stieglitz's gallery The Intimate, according to a notation by Greenough, "unhealthy."

Not without impact were the geopolitical forces that swept the couple's world, especially on Stieglitz, who, as the son of German-Jewish immigrants, had completed part of his education in Berlin. Not only did the oncoming war unsettle the stock market, but the overwhelmingly "dry" Congress that took office in early 1917 edged ever closer to passing the eighteenth amendment or National Prohibition Act. Stieglitz himself had only a modest inheritance, and he relied upon the assistance of his wife, the brewery heiress Emmeline Obermeyer, whose income the amendment would curtail.

In one poignant letter, Stieglitz recounts surveying his 291 gallery in July 1917, which, for financial reasons, he has decided to close:

Nineteen years is a long while to live in a place — a lifetime — & although it has been no home — I have lived in it over 190 months — 5,700 days — There are a thousand books or more — I'll have to sell them for a song — some really valuable. The pictures — hundreds — ? — Furniture — & carpets — All must go. — Sacrificed — To store would be too expensive. It would mean a hope — a hope for what.

O'Keeffe, who was teaching art in Texas, watched the men she knew enlist, including her favorite brother Alexis. Gassed in the war, he died in 1930.

After the litigation that followed her own death, when her family successfully challenged the codicils that left her estate to her far younger confidante and business manager Juan Hamilton, it is a pleasure to know her here, almost fresh from her Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, roots.

As part of the art education she undertook between a series of jobs in the South and Midwest, O'Keeffe wanted Stieglitz, whose 291 gallery she had visited on intermittent stays in New York, to examine a set of her charcoal drawings. Their correspondence begins following his enthusiastic response. By that time, she was, once again, away from the city. She assumed her position as head of the art department at Texas State Normal College in September 1916.

Then the narrative follows a well known arc. A relatively unsophisticated woman meets a worldly man 23 years her senior who is trapped in a loveless marriage. Passion supplants infatuation. His divorce and their marriage follow. The woman gains her footing, and with it a need for independence that will take her far away. Craving an audience, the older man turns to another young woman — in this case, the socialite Dorothy Norman — with whom he begins an affair.

Greenough, whose never burdensome annotations run throughout the volume, provides passages of text to complete the narrative of the couple's relationship and also to provide insights and analysis. One analysis considers why Steiglitz and O'Keeffe, who had known each other only briefly in New York, developed their close relationship. Greenough notes that, around 1915, each was at a turning point in life. The galleries that opened after the Armory Show of 1913 had given Stieglitz competition that resulted, in part, in his taking an interest in women as creative, if intuitive, artists. O'Keeffe, the art student who had never exhibited, left New York in 1915 so besotted by 291 that, as she confided to a friend, she wanted Stieglitz "more than anyone I know" to "like something — anything I had done."

As early as November of 1916, Stieglitz, who at one point confesses to O'Keeffe, that he can't draw ("Not a line"), sends her, as part of a long letter, this:

You yearn for someone to understand every heartbeat of yours — to take every heartbeat — conscious — & otherwise — for what they are. — And you well know no one can understand so fully — but some come nearer to it than others — some very near — The yearn goes out — whether you wish it or not — to others who are feeling as you do —

To which O'Keeffe, in her down-to-earth tone, replies:

— Then your letter —
When I was about a third of the way through the sister made me get up —
I had to laugh as I crawled out — The darned thing had excited me so I was dripping with perspiration —
Well - you're a funny man — My first reaction was to feel about old enough to be your grandmother — and want to say — There little boy don't get so excited — don't bank on me — I'm only a woman — maybe I should say only a human creature — It was a great letter —"

By 1929, the practicalities of day-to-day living with her husband's friends and family during summers at the Stieglitz estate in upstate New York and their peripatetic existence in the city had clashed with, as she puts it, her need to grow.

"— You would not be loving me if I had not come away —," O'Keeffe writes in mid-1929, after she has traveled west to spend her first summer in New Mexico — a far cry from Europe, which was the first destination she had considered. From New York, Stieglitz, in letters that are increasingly agitated, laments that he cannot visit because, he claims, the high altitude there would tax his weak heart. By the end of the book, the tables have turned, and Stieglitz is trying to comfort O'Keeffe. She has despaired over a failed mural contract at Radio City Music Hall and the couple's tattered relationship. She has suffered a nervous breakdown, and she has not painted for a year.

By this point, her letters have grown shorter and sadder, Stieglitz's relentlessly supportive rhetoric feels redundant, and the lyricism that had emerged from the ebb and flow of their correspondence has virtually disappeared. What anchors  My Faraway One are the years when that lyricism bursts from an all-consuming love that, among artists or others, seldom finds its way into words. At times erotic and, as such, reminiscent of the sexual content in O'Keeffe's early flower abstractions, these passages evoke the moments when, as she puts it, her center touched his. "It would do you good to come here for a week," the painter writes to Stieglitz in the summer of 1926. "I am as sure of it as I am that I have a right hand."

Greenough relies heavily on the catalogue raisonne by Barbara Buhles Lynes to identify the works O'Keeffe mentions in her correspondence. A senior curator who heads the department of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she uses her own  Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, which is the definitive record of his photography at the time of his death, to reference his.


LARB Contributor

Nancy Barnes has covered art extensively from London, New York, and Miami for The EconomistARTnews, and Metropolis magazine, among other publications. She has taught arts journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and studied art at the University of Oxford and journalism at Northwestern University. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.