20 June 2015

Alfred Stieglitz (New York) and Georgia O'Keeffe (Hawaii)

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) studied in Germany but sailed back home to the USA in 1890. He went into partnership in a photo engraving business and five years later, he became editor of American Amateur Photographer and a founding member of the Camera Club of New York. The Camera Club published a quarterly journal called Camera Notes, with Stieglitz as editor, focussing on academic essays about art and photography.

Alfred had known Emmeline Obermeyer, who was the sister of a close friend and business colleague and a daughter to a brewery fortune. In 1893, when she was 20 and Stieglitz a decade older, they married in New York.

In 1902, Stieglitz was asked to prepare an exhibition of American Pictorialist photographers. Soon he established a new journal called Camera Work, from 1903 on. This journal specifically dedicated itself to the study of aesthetics.

The Photo-Secession didn’t have rooms for its exhibitions until 1905. It was then that Edward Steichen gave up his own photographic studio and offered it as a gallery and head-quarters for the organisat­ion. The Little Galleries of the Secession opened in Nov 1905. To make the connection with the Secession in Vienna even clearer, Edward Steichen designed the interior of the New York gallery to match the look of his Viennese hero, the architect Josef Hoffmann. The Little Galleries, at “291” Fifth Ave NY, looked uncluttered and modern.

While he was enjoying significant artistic successes, money remained a constant problem. Most months the Little Galleries spent far more in operating than they made from print sales and from exhibition entry fees; membership in the Photo-Secession was declining and even subscriptions to Camera Work began to drop off. Stieglitz’s father had left him a substantial amount of money in his 1909 will but it could not last forever. Wife Emmy’s inherited money was also running out.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1936
Red Hills with the Pedernal, New Mexico
50 x 76 cm
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

In 1916, Stieglitz was shown a portfolio of drawings by a young artist named Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986); they had been sent to him by the photographer Anita Pollitzer, a close friend of O'Keeffe from Columbia University. Stieglitz immediately loved the drawings and without meeting O'Keeffe, he made plans to exhibit her work at “291”.

In 1918 O'Keeffe moved to New York after Stieglitz promised he would provide her with a quiet studio where she could paint. They were inseparable from the moment she arrived, and within a month he started to take many photographs of her. He sought a divorce from his wife Emmy but it wasn’t until 1924 that Stieglitz's divorce was finally granted. Within four months he and O'Keeffe married.

In the meantime, even before the wedding, Stieglitz organised annual exhibitions of O'Keeffe's work. O'Keeffe was becoming known as one of the most important American artists, and her work was beginning to fetch high prices.

By the late 1920s O’Keeffe wanted to travel to Santa Fe in New Mexico where a friend provided housing and set her up in an art studio. The more harsh the land, the happier O'Keeffe was; she went on many trips exploring the rugged mountains and deserts of the region. And for the next 20 years, she created wonderful art and architecture there.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 
Waterfall End of Road Iao Valley, 1939 
53 x 44 cm
Honolulu Academy of Arts. 

So committed was she to depicting the stark deserts of the South West that I did not know Georgia O’Keeffe visited Hawaii on an art tour. Tony Perrottet retraced Georgia O’Keeffe’s time in Hawaii. Apparently O’Keeffe had maintained a secret ­passion for the lush tropics and in 1939, off she went. As revealed by her many letters home to Stieglitz in New York, O’Keeffe’s nine-week stay in Hawaii provided unexpected artistic inspiration. As much as she had revelled in the SW deserts, now she revelled even more in the lush greenery and visual drama of lava.

By far the most productive period was on the island of Maui. Staying at Ka’eleku sugar plantation, the sensitive artist was given the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation manager as a guide. For 10 days, the O’Keeffe and Patricia Jennings visited sea caves, Polynesian ruins and wild beaches.

Back in Manhattan, O’Keeffe ­completed a series of 20 impressive paintings, seven being landscapes from Maui. They were very successful when they were displayed by Stieglitz in his New York gallery.

Tony Perrottet recently followed O’Keeffe’s awe-inspiring and hair-raising 104km drive route to Hana. The sheer cliff edges, cascading waterfalls and tumbling vegetation had not changed since 1939. His guide was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii, a memoir of the artist’s visit by Patricia Jennings, which she released in 2011. Only the sugar plantation had closed and the grand plantation mansion where she stayed is now part of the resort Travaasa Hana. A pair of natural arches O’Keeffe painted can easily be spotted, one via a beautiful windswept coastal hiking trail south of Hana. North of town there had been an overgrown ancient Hawaiian temple that O’Keeffe and her young guide ­visited.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 
Papaw Tree, Iao Valley Maui, 1939, 
42 x 35 cm
Honolulu Academy of Arts

Travellers can visit the Honolulu Museum of Art/formerly the Academy of Arts which has a collection of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii landscapes. Readers may like to read Georgia O'Keeffe's Hawaii by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman (Koa Books 2011)


Deb said...

Husbands and wives sometimes live in separate houses/art studios for a while, but this seems extremely far apart.

Karena Albert said...

O'Keeffe was an artist and woman who lived life in her own way. I love her works and am always thrilled to see them Hels. Thank you!

The Arts by Karena
Closer: Michael Clinton

Hels said...


Deborah Solomon (New York Times, Aug 2011) read 5000 letters between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, partially answering your comment. She said it was "basically a love story pitched at the highest romantic level. Which is not to say that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were actually compatible. They were the sort of couple who seemed to experience their most genuine togetherness when they were separated by a safe distance of at least a few hundred miles".

Stieglitz had been married to a "brewery heiress who made him feel dim and lifeless". But the letters to his second wife were full of sex, nudity and romance.

Hels said...


I could talk intelligently about American artists who made their lives and careers in Europe, like John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Man Ray, James McNeill Whistler...even William Glackens and Robert Henri. But I had to work hard to identify Georgia O'Keeffe's work.

You are right! I particularly loved her Oriental Poppies, Petunias, Cana Lillies, Black Iris, Autumn Leaves and Yellow Calla. And the musical imagery.

Ann ODyne said...

the classic male-Aussie joke about it being heaven to marry the daughter of a Publican is no excuse for 'Georgia OKeefe Homewrecker'. Alf wrote 35,000 of those steamy letters to Georgia and there is a book of them 'my faraway one'. The first wife (whose money had run out) must have thought "not far enough".

Hels said...


they are interesting questions - who had the hots for whom? who wanted marriage the most? who wanted to have a baby and who did not? I have seen a squillion photos of O'Keeffe's naked body taken by Stieglitz in 1918 and on. Alfred was then a very mature 54 and the object of his lust was a fresh, fit 30. As far as we can tell looking back 100 years, Alfred couldn't wait to get out of his first marriage as quickly and as painlessly as possible. No outside home wrecking was required.

He selected talented and/or well connected artists for his lovers. Dorothy Stecker Norman was a wealthy photographer, writer and political activist, and Stieglitz's lover from 1927 until his death in 1946.