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Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life

by Roxana Robinson
Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life

by Roxana Robinson

Paperback(Second Edition, Enlarged, Expanded Edition)

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One of the greatest and most admired artists of the twentieth century, Georgia O’Keeffe led a life rich in intense relationships—with family, friends, and especially with fellow artist Alfred Stieglitz. Her extraordinary accomplishments, such as the often eroticized flowers, bones, stones, skulls, and pelvises she painted with such command, are all the more remarkable when seen in the context of the struggle she waged between the rigorous demands of love and work.

When Roxana Robinson’s definitive biography of O’Keeffe was first published in 1989, it received rave reviews and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. This new edition features a new foreword by the author setting O’Keefe in an artistic context over the last thirty years since the book was first published, as well as previously unpublished letters of the young O’Keeffe to her lover, Arthur MacMahon. It also relates the story of Robinson’s own encounter with the artist. As interest in O’Keeffe continues to grow among museum-goers and scholars alike, this book remains indispensable for understanding her life and art.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781684580323
Publisher: Brandeis University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2020
Edition description: Second Edition, Enlarged, Expanded Edition
Pages: 679
Sales rank: 379,533
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Roxana Robinson is an art historian and novelist. Among her books of fiction are This Is My Daughter, Asking for Love and Other Stories, Summer Light, and A Glimpse of Scarlet.

Read an Excerpt

Georgia O'Keeffe

A Life

By Roxana Robinson


Copyright © 1989 Roxana Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2563-8


I remembered the beautiful fields of grain and wheat out there — like snow — only yellow ... in spring ... They were plowing and there were patterns of plowed ground and patches where things were growing.


The O'Keeffe property in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is prime farmland: rounded swells of mahogany earth sloping against an enormous sky. In April the fields are newly plowed, and the furrows sweep together toward the skyline. Red-winged blackbirds nest in the high grasses along the narrow road, and the windy spring sky is full of their liquid song.

The landscape is spare and inescapably abstract. Uncluttered by trees or underbrush, the sweep of the earth is idealized, nonspecific. For six months of the year the land is bare, its vast curves revealed. Even at the height of the summer, when the crop lies smoothly across the long rising slants, the shapes of the calm earth are always exposed.

There is no middle ground. There is nowhere for the eye to rest before the charged presence of the horizon, the long incantatory cusp between earth and sky. This is what breaks the hypnotic line of the earth, not another plane but another dimension: space.

Sun Prairie was first discovered and named in June 1837, by the Bird party, a wagon train headed for the new territorial capital, Madison. Struggling through rainy weather and muddy forest trails, the wagons stopped when the sun came out to reveal an expanse of bright plains. One of the travelers, possibly Charles Bird himself, carved the words on a tree to record the event: Sun Prairie. The wagons continued on, however, and it was not until 1839 that Charles Bird left Madison and returned to become the first white settler of Sun Prairie. There were only twenty-nine settlers living in the whole of what is now Dane County.

A scant two years after Bird's arrival, the tiny community erected a log cabin to serve as school and social and religious center. The first election was held there in 1842. Sun Prairie was officially founded in 1846, and in that year the post office was established. By 1847, there were Congregationalist, Methodist, and Baptist churches in the village.

The establishment of social, religious, and political institutions was an important part of the pioneering process. The settlers on the northern plains were homesteading families, not wandering adventurers like trappers or herders. The farmers depended upon their ability to transform their environment. The vastness of the prairie was threatening and disorienting to them, and as soon as they arrived, the settlers began staking physical and psychological claims in the dangerous open space that surrounded them, and initiating the slow process of transformation: nature into society. The indigenous population was composed of Winnebago Indians, whose attitude toward the land was communal and spiritual. Threatened by this "irrational" approach, the settlers congratulated themselves on its banishment. They established a rational, objective system: the plains were surveyed into neat, geometrical parcels, and each parcel had a particular and individual owner.

Though the soil was potentially generous, the first year of working it, coaxing it toward fertility, was hard. The prairie sod, dense and heavy with the roots of a thousand years of wild grasses, had to be broken like damp stone, with plow and oxen. On the open grasslands, trees for lumber were scarce; many early homesteads were built of sod and set half underground. In the woodlands, log cabins, dark and cramped, were laboriously constructed. The first year's subsistence crop was a truck patch: a small piece of land, painstakingly plowed and sowed with corn, potatoes, turnips, and other vegetables. With a few commercial supplies — flour, bacon, coffee — a rifle for the wild game, and some luck, a family could eke out a parlous living through the long first winter. Each year a piece of new ground was broken and the harvest was larger, until enough food was grown for the family to begin trading with the world. Margins widened, and the threats of failure and starvation receded.

If men bore the brunt of the physical labor, struggling with the heavy chores and wrestling with the resistant soil, it was the women who paid the emotional price of the move to the frontier. Studies of the diaries and reminiscences of the pioneer women who went west show that "not one wife initiated the idea; it was always the husband," and "When women wrote of the decision to leave their homes, it was always with anguish, a note conspicuously absent from the diaries of men."

Reluctant and grieving, the women found themselves adrift in an alien landscape, without the comfort of support from friends, family, or neighbors, often without even a language in common with the nearest inhabitants. They were faced with a harsh climate, severe physical duress, and constant uncertainty regarding survival. The vastness of the landscape was itself deeply threatening to the pioneer woman. Willa Cather, whose family moved out to Nebraska in 1883, wrote about arrival on the Great Plains:

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land — slightly undulating ... I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction.

As Nancy Chodorow has imaginatively argued, "the basic feminine sense of the world is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense is separate." A landscape without limits presents different aspects to the different genders. The men saw themselves as clearly distinct from the shapeless plains. They perceived the land as something they could transform, dominate, and control. But for women, such vastness contains the threat of the erasure of self, the annihilation of personality, a terrifying dissolution in the great waves of land. For both men and women it was deeply and terrifyingly exigent.

Pierce O'Keeffe and his wife, Catherine Mary Shortall, arrived in Sun Prairie in the summer of 1848. Unlike many Irish immigrants of the period, O'Keeffe was a man of property. He left the family wool business in County Cork when it began to founder under heavy taxation. Bringing with them the small, portable elements of their lives in Ireland — emblematic fragments: family silver and a china tea service — Pierce and Catherine traveled by ship from Liverpool to New York, where they disembarked on April 22. From New York they continued their journey by water through the Great Lakes to Milwaukee; from there they went by oxcart to Sun Prairie. In July, Pierce bought land from the government along the Koshkonong Creek, at about a dollar an acre. It was excellent farmland, smooth, rolling, and fertile.

Pierce and Catherine had four sons, who would help them work the land — Boniface, Peter, Francis Calyxtus, and Bernard — and they prospered. Pierce built the first frame house in the community, and in this setting Catherine installed the silver and the family tea service. After their early struggles, order, comfort, and a certain modest elegance were achieved.

George Victor Totto arrived in Sun Prairie in the mid-1850s, nearly a decade after the O'Keeffes. Totto was a Hungarian count, born in Old Buda in 1820. Exiled after his participation in the 1848 revolution of Hungary against Austria, he came to America in that same year. Though he may have been one of Kossuth's aides, Totto was not, as has been suggested, one of the four thousand refugees from Austrian rule who arrived in New York with the exiled governor of Hungary, Louis (Lajos) Kossuth. Kossuth was brought over in 1851 by the sympathetic U.S. government for a state visit. Totto was living in New York at the time, however, and he would certainly have benefited from the enthusiastic American response to the brave Hungarian attempt at self-rule. Two hundred thousand people had turned out to welcome Kossuth and his compatriots in New York. Many of his supporters remained in America when Kossuth left, George Victor Totto among them. Totto was committed to his adoptive country, where he would become a citizen. He decided boldly to move to a small frontier community in Wisconsin, named briefly Haraszthy, though later incorporated as Sauk City. By October of 1852, he was listed there as a member of the Freethinker Congregation. Before leaving for Wisconsin, however, Totto stayed at a hotel in New York City, where he met Charles Wyckoff and his two daughters.

The Wyckoff family, of Dutch origin, was well established in the New World: one ancestor, Edward Fuller, had made an impeccably early arrival on the Mayflower. The family had intermarried with other important Dutch families, though by the mid-nineteenth century the Wyckoffs were far from grand.

Charles Wyckoff was one of fourteen children. He grew up in Somerville, New Jersey, where his father, Abraham, kept an inn. In February 1827, Charles married Alletta May Field, of Bound Brook. They had two daughters, Isabella Dunham, named after Charles's mother, and Jane Eliza (called Jennie). Like his father, Charles was an innkeeper, but he was a restless one, who moved constantly between New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. In 1853, Wyckoff and two brothers started the Wyckoff Hotel, on Warren Street in New York, but even this family venture did not settle Charles down. Alletta had died, and the following year, with his new wife, Elizabeth (a widow from New Jersey), and his two grown daughters, Charles abandoned the family enterprise to his brothers and set out on his last and most perilous venture: managing a hotel in the small, primitive town of Sauk City, Wisconsin.

It is likely that the adventurous Hungarian count Totto played a part in the Wyckoffs' decision to move to Sauk City. Of the Wyckoffs, it may have been the older daughter, Isabella, who was the prime mover. Certainly an attraction was to develop between the exotic European and the young woman from New York, and it may well have begun on Warren Street.

In any case, Isabella was strong-willed. Her tiny diary (a succinct listing of important events in her life) begins with the stark announcement: "I Came West. April 1854." The first word is larger than the rest and embellished with flourishes. The bold use of the first person singular suggests autonomy and independence; the omission of family members suggests a journey made, metaphorically, in solitude.

Charles Wyckoff may have opened his inn in the raw, energetic frontier town; shortly after the family's arrival, however, an epidemic of cholera broke out. Before he could move his family to safety, Wyckoff contracted the disease himself. There was no cure for cholera in 1854, and in her diary Isabella recorded: "The 10th of August. Pa died."

Isabella was twenty-five, and her sister, Jennie, was eighteen. Left with limited means in the rumbustious prairie community, without friends, their only kin a twice-widowed stepmother, the two girls chose matrimony as careers: they had few other options. Significantly, however, neither chose to return to the relative comfort and decorum of the East.

Jennie was married at once, to a Mr. Ezra L. Varney. She may have already been married when her father died: the cemetery records show the owners of the burial plot to be Isabella and Elizabeth Wyckoff and Jane Varney. Isabella waited until the following spring, when she noted: "May 21, 1855. Married George Victor Totto." Jennie and Ezra Varney were witnesses to the ceremony but did not stay in Sauk City. They set out on the perilous overland wagon route for gold rush California.

Since Sauk City was originally named for an adventurous Hungarian traveler, Totto may have assumed it would be full of his compatriots. In fact its ethnic makeup was almost entirely German. The local paper was written in German and remained so until well into the twentieth century. Discovering that he was part of a tiny minority in a German community, Totto moved to a more heterogeneous settlement. He went first to a log cabin in Waunakee, on the north side of Lake Mendota, and next to Westport, in 1864. By 1872, George Totto and his family had moved to the town of Sun Prairie. There Totto bought land in the southeastern sector, very near that of Pierce O'Keeffe.

In preindustrial Europe, aristocratic property was agricultural, and the Totto holdings in Hungary would have been farmland. Hungary was still semifeudal at midcentury, however: while George Totto may have supervised agricultural operations, it is very unlikely that he had ever set his noble hand to a plow. It is still more unlikely that in Europe, where the land has been tilled for centuries, he had ever encountered the need to break sod behind a team of oxen. And certainly Isabella, his wife, born and reared in an eastern environment and most recently from that most sophisticated and urban of all American settings, New York, would have known little of running a pioneering farmer's household.

Their venture — claiming the land, transforming the environment from hostile to benevolent — was to make extraordinary and unaccustomed demands on them both.

George and Isabella Totto had six children. "Allie" — Alletta, later Ollie — "born March 6, 1856," wrote Isabella. Josephine followed in 1858. On a farm, girls were useful, but boys were a necessity. It was not until 1859 that the Tottos produced a son, Charles. Five years later, on January 13, 1864, Ida Ten Eyck was born in Westport. Another daughter, Lenore (Lola) followed, and at last another son, George.

The naming of the children follows the maternal line. The first daughter, Alletta, was named for Isabella's mother; the first son, Charles, for her father. It was not until the sixth and last child was born that George Totto was given a namesake. It is women who are keepers of a culture. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers tell the family stories, they recount the family traditions of manner, language, and behavior, weaving into the lives of their children strands from the lives of their parents. The Dutch strain of the Wyckoff line would be perpetuated through name and tradition: two generations later, the family members still talked proudly about Wyckoff family history. Ida inherited the portraits of Abraham and Isabella, her grandparents — physical proof of their faces, features, and world. The Totto heritage — language, customs, and ancestors — would be lost. The only relic from the palmy days of Hungarian nobility would be a pair of gold and emerald earrings, still in family hands. Tiny, intricate, mysterious, they were like golden hieroglyphics, symbols of a life both foreign and splendid, the speech, style, and premise of which were all utterly alien to the life on the Great Plains.

George Totto and his family worked hard and prospered. A town survey of 1873 shows Totto's land, adjacent to the O'Keeffe property, to be identical in size and quality; each family had two hundred acres of good arable land. The New World was living up to expectations: the exiled Hungarian count and the failed Irish businessman were successful; they were neighbors and equals.

The Totto household had expanded. Isabella's sister, Jennie, had moved in to live with them. After a harrowing trip west by wagon train, the adventurous Mr. Varney had died in California of tuberculosis, leaving Jennie abandoned once more in a strangewestern landscape. Unwilling to retrace the overland trip alone, Jennie set out on a hazardous journey by sailing ship around the tip of South America, a voyage that ended at last in the safe haven of her sister Isabella's household.

In 1876, George Totto's sentence of exile was long over: a general amnesty had been declared in 1867. He was well established in America, with two hundred generous acres of land, a strong and capable wife, six healthy children, and a sister-in-law to help look after them. Now in his mid-fifties, Totto was still hale and active. There would be no better time to return to Hungary, to visit relatives and see the property.


Excerpted from Georgia O'Keeffe by Roxana Robinson. Copyright © 1989 Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Expanded Edition ix

Acknowledgments xix

Part I 1877-1902 Sun Prairie: The Wide and Generous Land 1

Part II 1903-1918 Distant Skies: Explorations and Initiations 35

Part III 1919-1928 An Ordered Life: Manhattan and Lake George 201

Part IV 1929-1946 A Fair Division: New York and New Mexico 313

Part V 1947-1972 A Peaceful Life: The Land of Shining Stone 467

Part VI 1973-1986 Withdrawal: The Dying of the Light 521

Sources and Codes for Notes 561

Notes 565

Selected Bibliography 609

Index 617

Appendix Letters from Georgia O'Keeffe to Arthur Macmahon 1915-1938 637

Illustrations Sources and Credits 685

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