Georgia O’Keeffe As You’ve Never Seen Her Before

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Think you know Georgia O’Keeffe?  You’ll be thinking differently after seeing a thoughtful arrangement of 125 multi-medium artifacts presented in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum. 

This collection transcends the notion of O’Keeffe as a celebrated painter of female erotica and death. Instead, the composite of photographs, paintings, and fashions manifest a vibrant psychological thesis that explains O’Keeffe’s resolution to live a life where “everything in one’s environment should be beautiful and unified in a harmonious style of simplicity and understatement.”

Organized by guest curator Wanda Corn, professor emerita in art history at Stanford University, the exhibition at the Salem, Massachusetts museum is eclectic, offering a fresh perspective on the woman recognized as the “Mother of American Modernism.” Georgia O’Keeffe:  Art, Image, Style landmarks the artist’s cultivated transitions from determined schoolgirl born in 1870 to reluctant pop-icon who died in 1986 at 98.

Tracing the momentum of O’Keeffe’s award-winning career,* the gallery stroll begins with an unconventional triptych that also serves as a synopsis of the exhibition. The synergistic pieces reflect the dynamic of O’Keeffe’s artistic statement through a dress, an oil painting, and a photograph taken by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.   

Originally presented last March at the Brooklyn Museum, this expanded exhibition elaborates on the aesthetic of O’Keeffe’s philosophy by juxtaposing her images, her signature-clothing, and accessories throughout galleries that include influences of New York, New Mexico, and Japan. As Professor Corn explains in the catalogue, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, “There’s a sense of ‘wholeness’ to Georgia’s image. Her presentations were a continuous form, columnar yet flowing.” Corn likens the V-shape of many of O’Keeffe’s outfits to “the base of a germinating seed breaking through the earth.” That theme is revisited throughout O’Keeffe’s works and offers a fun search. 

Chronicled in the exhibit are an assortment of strong silhouette images by famed photographer Stieglitz of his bohemian-muse.  Their intense relationship and eventual marriage was fortuitous for both artists. In the early 1900s he was eager to promote photography as an emerging art form. The experienced 52-year-old dealer of American and European avant-garde art was also inspired to promote then-28-year-old O’Keeffe, as one of the only female artists worthy of recognition.

Stieglitz capitalized on their intimacy, photographing Georgia and using her nude images in his shows. To her dismay, he also assigned erotic qualities to the abstract imagery she painted. O’Keeffe denied they were intended to be provocative and resisted being labeled as a female artist, preferring instead to be known as Georgia O’Keeffe ~ an artist. Their partnership and marriage lasted from 1915 until his death in 1944.

With a 3-D feel of an evolving Instagram account the collection transitions from Stieglitz’s black-and-whites to include works by other artists and a range of colors.  An artfully positioned painting of the Brooklyn Bridge and black coat with brilliant striping simultaneously pays homage to O’Keeffe’s understanding of her time in New York and re-settlement in her spiritual home, the Southwest.

Additional fusions of her art and fashion include a scallop-framed oil painting of a skull imposed on an undulating mountain range that similarly reflects the style of O’Keeffe’s nearby Ferragamo shoes.  Each grouping shows in full-scale the unified vision of the American woman who remains relevant as an artist and an icon of timeless inspiration.

Andy Warhol’s pink diamond-dust portrait of O’Keeffe as an elderly woman leads to the conclusion of the exhibit. There, a short video of Dior’s 2018 cruise-collection credits O’Keeffe’s personal style and aesthetic for inspiring a growing number of American and International fashion designers that “take her as their muse.”

Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol

Because the exhibition features the works of many artists influenced by Georgia O’Keeffe’s discipline, nuanced interpretations of her resolution to live an organic life of simplicity may surprise guests of the museum. It was her intention to be understated, but this imaginative collection makes a statement that’s buzz-worth! 

See it now through Sunday, April 1. 


*1971 O’Keeffe was awarded  honorary degrees from:  Brown, Bryn Mawr, Columbia, and Mount Holyoke. 

* 1977 President Gerald Ford honored her with the Medal of Freedom

*1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

Peabody Essex Museum
144 Essex Street
Salem, Massachusetts

866-745- 9500 

Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

closed Mondays