Wild Love: Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keeffe

by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

The story of the love between photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O’Keeffe fascinates, not only because it tracks a significant time in the development of modern art, but also because it is laced with the humanity and fragility that makes for a passion far more interesting than fiction. They were artists together. They shared a devotion as well as an honesty that reflected a relationship unique for its time. They cycled from intense heat for each other to a shaky acknowledgment that much of what they desired out of life could not be completely fulfilled by the other, and then back to gratitude for having found someone with whom they could celebrate the human limits of their love.

At a time when men and women had extraordinarily stringent gender roles, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship placed them as equals both personally and professionally, with each other’s desired role being determined wholly by their individual wants. It is no surprise that two people who could form this type of bond would be largely responsible for setting the modern and post-modern art stage. O’Keeffe was one of the first female artists to rise to prominence in her time, and over her long and fruitful life, she produced a body of work that has become iconic.

Learn more about this talented couple and the flower arrangement they inspired after the jump . . .

Above: Alfred Stieglitz in 1908 by Alvin Langdon Coburn, image via Wikimedia; portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918, image via Wikimedia; portrait of Alfred Stieglitz taken in 1902 by Gertrude Kasebier, image via Wikimedia

Alfred Stieglitz is often seen as the father of the modern art world we know today. Stieglitz was a staunch advocate for photography as a medium and, both as an auteur and a gallerist, is often regarded as one of the first people to elevate it to a fine art. In addition, Stieglitz was responsible for many of the earliest galleries in New York and for bringing many of the avant-garde European artists of the time to the United States. Raised in Europe, Stieglitz spent his early life studying mechanical engineering before being influenced by Berlin intellectuals to pursue art. He returned to New York in 1891, where he became increasingly well known for his photographic work and writings on photography. He became president of the prominent Camera Club of New York City, where his work on their journal turned it into the finest photographic magazine in the world. In 1902, he curated one of the first exhibits to show exclusively photographic works, leading him to start his own publication, Camera Work. By 1905, he had opened his first gallery, Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, renaming it in 1908 to simply 291.

In 1916, Stieglitz was shown the drawings of a young art teacher in Texas named Georgia O’Keeffe. Without meeting her, he was instantly taken by the work and made plans to show it at 291. By the summer of 1917, they were frequently writing to each other between New York and Texas, and soon after, O’Keeffe moved to New York into a studio space provided for her by Stieglitz.

Above: Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918, image via Wikimedia; portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe (“Hands”) taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918, image via Wikimedia

Their letters from this period and the rest of their relationship have been collected and published in the book My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: 1915–1933 by Sarah Greenough. These letters reveal the intensity of their passion, as well as their level of regard for each other as equals. As O’Keeffe says, “I’m getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me . . . Having told you so much of me — more than anyone else I know — could anything else follow but that I should want you?” And Stieglitz writes back, “It’s queer how fond I am of you, not at all as man and woman but something so different it’s very wonderful and it hurts terribly.”

Once O’Keeffe was in New York, she became Stieglitz’s muse. Stieglitz had grown up with twin siblings and had always longed for a twin of his own, which he claimed to have finally found in O’Keeffe. Stieglitz took more than 350 portraits of her, one of which, titled “Hands,” sold in 2006 for $1.47 million. In turn, Stieglitz promoted O’Keeffe tirelessly, and she became famous for her still-life paintings of flowers, abstracted and approached with a point of view that focused on their intricacies of shape. In 1928, Stieglitz pulled together an offer for the sale of her Calla Lily paintings that would have been the largest sum ever paid for a group of paintings by a living American artist at the time.

From above: The 1903 cover of Camera Work, Stieglitz’s quarterly photography journal, image via Wikimedia; a 1916 watercolor by O’Keeffe currently at the Brooklyn Museum, image via Wikimedia; O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, image via Wikimedia

Paintings by O’Keeffe, from above: Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills, 1935, Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, Shell No. 1 and Bella Donna, all via Wikipainting

O’Keeffe was invited by Mabel Dodge Luhan to Taos, New Mexico, a place that would forever impact O’Keeffe’s work and eventually become her home. While Stieglitz openly struggled in his letters with her decision to move so far away, their relationship was, as O’Keeffe biographer Benita Eisler writes, “a collusion . . . a system of deals and trade-offs, tacitly agreed to and carried out, for the most part, without the exchange of a word.” And without a doubt, they relentlessly helped each other fulfill their respective creative ambitions.

Their relationship lasted — through many challenges, for sure — until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. O’Keeffe scattered his ashes and donated his photographs to museums all over the world, with the largest collection going to the National Gallery. O’Keeffe then moved to her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, full-time, where she took inspiration from the surrounding scenery for the rest of her very long life.

Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

O’Keeffe’s work served as the principal inspiration for our arrangement today. In lieu of something complex or complicated, our arrangement consists of lilies, both white orientals and calla lilies. Both varieties were popular during the first half of the twentieth century and can be gorgeous when kept simple and unadorned. White oriental lilies last a very long time and only get more expansive and open as they age. Personally, I like them that way, and I love how reminiscent they become of O’Keeffe’s Bella Donna painting. A simple arrangement of lilies, paired with a skull and a woven southwestern textile, pays homage to the simple, modern, yet graceful style present in O’Keeffe’s work.

Above images by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Suggested For You


  • You might be interested in this Smithsonian project, click! photography changes everything, which includes a story about Stieglitz and O’Keeffe by Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Lynes talks about how Georgia O’Keeffe benefited from, and then worked against the photographic images by Stieglitz that first defined her as a public figure: http://click.si.edu/Story.aspx?story=700

  • In 2009, we planned a trip to Oregon. The first place I planned to visit was the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe. I had wanted to go there ever since it opened. It was amazing, as was Santa Fe. We were going north to Durango, CO, and for the next few hours drove through the country she painted, by her ranch–the landscape on that out of the way highway was amazing. If you’re a fan and ever have the chance, take that trip.

  • I have always loved her work. Her proportions were enormous yet she created such elegance and subtlety. Loved reading about her relationship with Alfred, very interesting. Thank you

  • Huge huge fan of Georgia O’Keeffe. However, from my understanding, their affair was quite tumultuous and painful. Despite their seemingly genuine affection for one another, he was prone to narcissism and adultery (with her during his first marriage and again after he married O’Keeffe). From my study, she felt isolated in upstate NY and Stieglitz seemed to take on a more domineering personality when surrounded by his family. This was part of the catalyst to her move to Santa Fe (although, thank god for that! some of her best work was created during this period). Of course, all of this makes for a Harlequin paperback-worthy romance but not as delightful and glossy as usually portrayed.

  • Yeah, I have to follow up on what MJ said. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz clearly loved and admired one another, but that love seemed to ebb and flow. Stieglitz cheated on O’Keeffe numerous times throughout their relationship (both before and after they were married) and the pain from these transgressions, along with her curiosity and love for New Mexico, prompted O’Keeffe to leave him. They remained in contact, but it was clearly a fractured relationship. Nevertheless, this post was wonderful to read and thank you for posting!

  • just came back from Helsinki where I went to the o’keeffe’s exhibition. Her paintings from the desert of New Mexico tell that she was in her most elements there alone in synch with the bare nature surrounding her. That’s the wild love that she should be known for!!

  • I greatly enjoyed reading this beautiful and well-written post about such a fascinating couple in the artist community, but I do wish the camera had been zoomed out a bit so that we could fully appreciate this inspired arrangement in its entirety! Maybe I am alone in this desire? Regardless, the photos, post, and flowers are all lovely. :)

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