“What the World Gives to Me”: The Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Georgia O’Keeffe hands. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918.
Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-6229

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is lauded during Women’s History Month and on International Women’s Day, and indeed all year round, as one of America’s most prominent women artists. O’Keeffe created her art within a new modernist movement and personally embodied artistic trends. Her paintings are recognized around the world, and her celebrity as an iconic modern woman and doyenne of modernism, fashion, and style continues unabated. Though she protested Freudian interpretations of her art, resisted a feminist label, and painted according to many themes, much of her best-known artwork involves floral imagery and abstracted landscape renderings that are read by viewers as beautifully evocative of female sexuality and intimate visions of the female form.

When her husband, the art impresario and gallery director Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), made photographs portraying details of O’Keeffe’s nude body as abstract studies and exhibited them as fine art in New York, they caused a sensation and propelled O’Keeffe further into the public eye. She was objectified both as woman and as art by the camera lens and the gaze of the viewers. She went on to be the subject of many photographers’ images over time.

Like other modernist acquaintances, O’Keeffe combined new concepts of art with new concepts of society. While some of her counterparts turned to analyses of class and race, O’Keeffe supported the goals of the National Woman’s Party, in which her friend Anita Pollitzer became an organizer and leader, championing women’s suffrage, equal rights, and freedom of opportunity.

O’Keeffe is also gaining increasing recognition as a highly poetic and vulnerable woman writer. Her letters—archived along with those of Stieglitz at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; studied at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Library and Archive in Santa Fe; and part of a small manuscript collection acquired in 2018 and newly digitized by the Library of Congress, Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz—reveal O’Keeffe as a copious letter writer, dedicated friend, and observer of the world, whose expressive penmanship in itself was a calligraphic art form.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, portrait by Carl Van Vechten. Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-106861

The new online collection from the Library of Congress, Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, consists of two sets of letters written separately by O’Keeffe and Stiegliz over time to their mutual friend, the filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz (1903-1976). Rodakiewicz bundled and saved the letters he received as keepsakes. The full collection spans from 1929, when O’Keeffe first met Rodakiewicz in New Mexico, to 1947, when the newly widowed O’Keeffe settled her husband’s estate and transitioned to permanent residence in the Southwest. The Manuscript Division finding aid further outlines the content and provides folder-level links to the items in the digitized collection.

When O’Keeffe met Rodakiewicz, he was married to the poet and ranch owner Marie Tudor Garland, and the pair were part of the artistic and literary circle surrounding Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. During the years covered by the collection, O’Keeffe first lived at Luhan’s busy abode in Taos during her initiation to New Mexico. She later stayed at Garland’s H&M Ranch in Alcalde, where she could exist more quietly and paint different vistas. After visiting the Chama Valley, she shifted to Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu as her ultimate New Mexico destinations. Rodakiewicz, meanwhile, gained praise from Stieglitz for his art film, Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements (1931). He collaborated with Paul Strand (Stieglitz protégé, photographer and filmmaker) and others to make the critically acclaimed film Redes in Mexico. Later in the 1930s he forged a career in documentary film. By the end of Stieglitz’s life in the World War II era, Rodakiewicz was an established part of the Stieglitz circle in New York.

Stieglitz’s letters to Rodakiewicz span from 1933 to 1942. They chart his health, his activities at Lake George, and his management of his last gallery in Manhattan, An American Place, which he opened in 1929 and operated for the duration of his life. As Stieglitz put it in a letter from May 10, 1934, “The Place comes before all—and Georgia is of The Place.” Stieglitz featured O’Keeffe’s work regularly at the gallery, including in annual shows. He used An American Place as a gathering place to discuss modern art and philosophy, and to promote the art of painters and photographers of his circle, many of whom—like Ansel Adams, Paul and Rebecca Strand, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin—also had close ties to New Mexico. Rodakiewicz was among those friends who helped O’Keeffe keep vigil by Stieglitz’s bedside at Doctor’s Hospital in New York when Stieglitz collapsed due to stroke after suffering a long-existing heart condition in July 1946. His death came not long after the Museum of Modern Art installed a selection of O’Keeffe’s work as the institution’s first solo show for a woman artist. The timeline Alfred Stieglitz: Impresario of Art, 1864-1946 provides detail of his fuller career and earlier galleries.

Stieglitz to Rodakiewicz, May 10, 1934, about An American Place. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz Correspondence, Manuscript Division

O’Keeffe note to Henwar Rodakiewicz while going over mountain pass on the train, 1945. Santa Fe Chief letterhead. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz Correspondence, Manuscript Division

O’Keefe’s letters in the Library of Congress collection span from 1929 to 1947. They reflect her time both in New York and New Mexico. They reveal a private side of self-doubt and illness, but also the strong burgeoning of her selfhood in the years between 1929 and the immediate aftermath of Stieglitz’s death, during which she established a cyclical pattern of splitting the seasons between summers in New Mexico and winters with Stieglitz at their New York apartment or family compound at Lake George. O’Keeffe writes to Rodakiewicz of the linear skyscraper landscapes seen from her Shelton Hotel apartment window near Christmas time; the bones, twisted trees, and red Southwestern cliffs of northern New Mexico; and the moonlit or starry night skies she gloried in from the rooftop of her home at Ghost Ranch, listening to the cries of coyotes and observing the blue outline of Mount Pedernal in the distance.

Conservators at the Library of Congress have determined that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz sometimes utilized the same stationery in New York when writing to Rodakiewicz. Other letterhead used by O’Keeffe captures the dynamism of her life as she penned letters from trains, set off on a Pacific voyage by ship, and became a regular in the Ghost Ranch community, its skull logo gracing her notepaper. Later in her life O’Keeffe become a world traveler. In the Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, her letters provide hints of wanderlust and her love of new places as she traveled to Bermuda, Canada, Hawaii, and other locations, where she rested, recuperated, worked, and painted.

O’Keeffe to Rodakiewicz, from ocean liner to Hawaii, 1939. She visited Henwar’s wife Peggy in California before embarking. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz Correspondence, Manuscript Division

O’Keeffe to Rodakiewicz re: his impending visit to New Mexico. On Ghost Ranch letterhead, 1947. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz Correspondence, Manuscript Division

O’Keeffe had many close friendships with men, including Laughing Horse publisher Spud Johnson, poet Witter Bynner, Taos Pueblo community member Tony Lujan (Luhan), and Indian rights advocate John Collier—these relationships all forged in Taos—and with writers like Jean Toomer, who also spent time with Stieglitz at Lake George and at Luhan’s Taos colony. Stieglitz’s loyal promotion of O’Keeffe’s work was crucial in her success and in her entre into the Avant Garde circle of literary and artistic tastemakers, but key women also enriched her life and provided her with friendship, emotional support, and opportunity.

Several of these key women are mentioned in the letters in the newly digitized collection. They include Rodakiewicz’s first and second wives, Marie Tudor Garland and Peggy Bok; Stieglitz and Gertrude Stein’s friend Mabel Dodge Luhan, the mover-and-shaker New York salon and Taos art colony creator who promoted D. H. Lawrence in America and wrote of her relationship with him and other intellectuals in her many-volumed literary autobiography; Luhan’s friends, the artist Dorothy Brett and Frieda Lawrence, who O’Keeffe visited and rode horses with at the Lawrence’s Kiowa Ranch; Paul Strand’s wife Rebecca Strand, a frequent guest of Stieglitz at Lake George with whom O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico in the summer of 1929; and aspiring writer Maria Chabot, who O’Keeffe met in Alcalde in 1940 and who became essential to smoothing O’Keeffe’s way at her home in Ghost Ranch and in developing her new home in Abiquiú. The timeline Georgia O’Keeffe: The Making of the Artist provides more detail on her friendships and full career.

Georgia O’Keeffe, artist’s statement, 1940. Miscellany, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz Correspondence, Manuscript Division

The newly digitized letters chart O’Keeffe’s emergence into her own as an artist, as she negotiated and accepted new commercial commissions that made her branch out beyond the patronage of the Stieglitz gallery. This included the painting of a large flower reflective of beauty for the Elizabeth Arden salon in New York; painting the black sands, blue seas, and exotic flora for N. W. Ayer & Co., the advertising company representing the Dole Pineapple company in Hawaii; and involvement in the exhibition and installation of her own work and that of other artists at An American Place and museums.

Stieglitz exhibited work from O’Keeffe’s 1939 Hawaii trip at An American Place from February 3 to March 17, 1940. The show gave her cause to contemplate the meaning of place and its inspiration to artists. TIME magazine was enthusiastic in its coverage, excitedly proclaiming, “Critics agreed that Georgia O’Keeffe was still tops among U.S. woman painters” (Feb. 12, 1940). In her extant artist’s statement, saved along with O’Keeffe and Stieglitz letters by Rodakiewicz, O’Keeffe wrote (in what TIME noted was in Gertrude Stein-like form) that “my painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me.”  The same can be said of the expressiveness in her letter writing.

 

Read more about it:

Published collected letters of Georgia O’Keeffe drawn from archival repositories include Sarah Greenough’s Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters and My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz; Clive Giboire’s Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer; Barbara Buhler Lynes and Anne Paden’s Maria Chabot – Georgia O’Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949; and Amy Von Lintel’s 2020 study Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters; see also Jennifer Sinor’s imaginative Letters Like the Day (2017). Studies of O’Keeffe and modernism as a lifestyle include Wanda Corn’s Living Modern and Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez’s Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. O’Keeffe’s work in Hawaii is chronicled in Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman’s Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii. For a fuller O’Keeffe bibliography and resource links, see Related Resources.

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