Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, born in 1887 in New Mexico, was a renowned artist who is widely recognized as the “Mother of American modernism.” The most famous Georgia O’Keeffe paintings include her works featuring large flowers, New York cityscapes, and New Mexico landscapes.
Today, Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings can be seen in museums across the world, including the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, which is dedicated to the artist’s life, work, and legacy.
Due to her talent and significant influence on American art, particularly as a strong female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe received numerous honorary degrees, awards, and worldwide recognition in her lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Gerald Ford, and an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Georgia O’Keeffe paintings: The artist’s beginnings
O’Keeffe knew she wanted to be an artist by age 10, and together with her two sisters, she first started to learn about art through a local watercolor artist, Sara Mann. In 1905, at age 18, she attended schools in Chicago and New York for formal art training, but was forced to quit in 1908 due to lack of funds.
She worked as a commercial illustrator before teaching in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina from 1911-1918. During the summers of 1912 through 1914, O’Keeffe was exposed to Arthur Wesley Dow, the artist and colleague of her instructor. Dow was influenced by Japanese art, with a personal style based on interpretation of his subjects.
This interaction became the catalyst for O’Keeffe’s experimentation with abstract compositions, which she increasingly favored over realism. This major change in O’Keeffe’s style and thinking can be seen best in her charcoal drawings created in 1915, which led to total abstraction.
In 1917, renowned art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited O’Keeffe’s paintings. Later, he persuaded her to move to New York to further develop her career, and the two developed a strong relationship that resulted in their eventual marriage in 1924.
In years to follow, O’Keeffe played with abstraction in her famous Red Canna flower paintings (which many thought represented female genitalia, but O’Keeffe denied this belief). And during Stieglitz’s and her time in New Mexico, she began to paint desert landscapes and close-ups of animal skulls.
Let’s explore more of the most famous Georgia O’Keeffe paintings to know, below.
8 famous Georgia O’Keeffe paintings to know
1. Untitled – vase of flowers, 1903-1905
This early watercolor by O’Keeffe exemplifies the artist’s beginnings as a realist painter, before becoming influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow starting in 1912 and moving into abstraction.
2. Drawing XIII, 1915
As one of several charcoal drawings mentioned above, Drawing XII is one of the first examples of O’Keeffe’s major exploration of abstraction, based on her personal sensations. From then on, she created work based on how she felt and what she imagined. Considered quite radical, her 1915 charcoal drawings, featuring just a few lines each, led to the artist’s later work with total abstraction.
O’Keeffe mailed these charcoal drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, who took them to O’Keeffe’s then future husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz, who exhibited them in his New York gallery, 291, in 1916, noted that they were the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while.”
3. Light Coming on the Plains series, 1917
In 1916, O’Keeffe began the above series of watercolor paintings which she based on the beautiful views from her summer walks. The artist was particularly fond of sunrises and sunsets, especially of the vibrant, intense nighttime colors they emitted. O’Keeffe freely painted series like Light Coming on the Plains, without first creating a sketch, inspired entirely by her own private feelings.
But O’Keeffe stopped working in watercolor when her relationship with Stieglitz began, as he believed watercolor was more for amateur female artists.
4. Orange and Red Canna, 1926
During her early years in New York, living with Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe got to know several artists in her lover’s network, including Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, and Marsden Hartley. Strand’s photography, in particular, had an influence on O’Keeffe, as did Precisionism.
O’Keeffe began to paint natural inanimate objects like flowers and rocks. The above work, Canna Red and Orange, is an example of the large-scale flower works for which O’Keeffe quickly became widely admired and recognized. These magnified portrayals of natural objects allowed the artist to express intense emotions.
5. Radiator Building—Night, New York, 1927
O’Keeffe became inspired by New York City skyscrapers and city skylines after her 1925 move to her 30th-floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel. She created a series of paintings of New York buildings and cityscapes from 1925-1929, showing her Precisionist style and skill at portraying buildings. Radiator Building—Night, New York is one of the most famous examples in this series.
6. Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935
In 1929, O’Keeffe left New York to visit Taos, New Mexico with a friend. From her window, she could see the Taos Mountains, which she ended up exploring along with the deserts in the region on hikes that summer.
From then on, the artist returned to New Mexico almost every year, collecting souvenirs like rocks and bones from deserts to use in her works, as she did in the above Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. This particular painting was meant to depict elements of Ghost Ranch, which she later described as a “beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place.”
7. Summer Days, 1936
In 1936, Georgia O’Keeffe finished her oil painting, Summer Days, which came to be known as one of her most famous works. The painting shows a desert below a deer skull and wildflowers, in a similar style to Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. At this point, O’Keeffe had purchased a house at Ghost Ranch and was spending much of her time there. In 1933, O’Keeffe had written that desert bones she came across were “strangely more living than the animals walking around,” which she portrays in the above piece.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s legacy lives on
After her husband Alfred Steiglitz died in 1946, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to her home in Abiquiú, New Mexico, until the last few years of her life when she lived in Santa Fe.
The artist was considered a legend at the start of the 1920s, admired for being a female role model in the art world and an independent spirit. While she was influenced by Surrealism and Precisionism, her work was entirely done in her own style – and for that, she was celebrated.
According to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which includes the artist’s Abiquiu Home and Studio, she was one of the first American artists to practice pure abstraction.
Today, O’Keeffe continues to hold the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a woman. Her 1932 painting, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, sold for $44.4 million in 2014. To put that into perspective, the selling price is more than three times the previous auction record for a female artist.
And while she remains celebrated for being an icon among woman artists, O’Keeffe refused to join feminist art movements and disliked being called a “woman artist,” preferring to be called just an “artist.”