IT IS ABSURD THE WAY I LOVE THIS COUNTRY,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe of the Texas Panhandle. Her early days in Amarillo and Canyon, where she taught art between 1912 and 1918, inspired the watercolors that first brought her fame, such as the Light Coming on the Plains series. After a period in New York, where she executed giant erotic canvases of flowers and shells, she adopted New Mexico as her home; on July 17 the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, with eighty of her paintings in its permanent collection, opens in Santa Fe. Today her images are ubiquitous—they have appeared on stationery, calendars, and even a postage stamp—but still admired, in part because she remains the foremost painter to validate the beauty of the desert.
She was born Georgia Totto O’Keeffe on November 15, 1887, in a Wisconsin town propitiously named Sun Prairie. She decided to be an artist in the eighth grade.
In 1916 a friend showed several of O’Keeffe’s drawings to photographer Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. They astonished him. The following year he showcased her Texas work in a solo exhibit.
In 1918 they became lovers, and Stieglitz began using her as a model for his classical (and, to some, scandalous) nude studies. Over a period of fifteen years he took more than five hundred photographs of O’Keeffe (clothed and unclothed), whom he married in 1924.
In 1936 beauty salon queen Elizabeth Arden commissioned an O’Keeffe painting of jimsonweed blossoms to hang in a “gymnasium moderne” in Manhattan.
During the forties, Stieglitz embarked on a very public affair with a young arts enthusiast. The humiliation drove O’Keeffe to a mental breakdown. Soon thereafter, she moved to New Mexico and bought a studio at Ghost Ranch, twelve miles north of Santa Fe.
In December 1945 she paid the Catholic church $10 for a crumbling adobe ruin on three acres of land near the village of Abiquiu.
She reveled in eccentricity as she aged, greeting visitors in a black Balenciaga ball gown or with her waist-length gray hair worn loose.
In 1973 O’Keeffe, then 85, grew close to Dallas native Juan Hamilton, a potter and member of her household staff who was 59 years her junior. In a codicil added to her will when she was 96, O’Keeffe left him the bulk of her $70 million estate. After her death in 1986, her family charged Hamilton with exerting undue influence over the frail artist. He eventually gave up some $50 million in paintings, property, and cash in an out-of-court settlement.