On Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and the similar yet often opposing pulls of artistic and romantic passions.
In her seminal 1963 text “The Problem That Has No Name” (that’s just an excerpt), the opening chapter in her equally pioneering The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan focuses on a variety of complex issues and struggles facing young married women, from media images and gender ideals to the day to day challenges of marriage, parenting, and home. Yet at heart of her analyses, at the core of that unnamed problem, lies a pair of contradictory pulls: on the one hand the desires for family, for marriage, for romantic and human connections; and on the other the desires for education, for career, for individual and professional successes. While there’s no doubt that the 1950s society Friedan analyzes privileged the former over the latter for these young women, I think she recognizes—and I know I would argue—that both pulls are also a part of most individuals, and that their contradictions thus stem at least in part from the complexities of our own identities and lives.
Those contradictions and complexities affect all of us who hope to balance family and career, but they are perhaps particularly pronounced for artists, and even more especially in artistic geniuses. While the idea of a “muse” might be somewhat clichéd, it also accurately defines the way in which great artists are so often pulled to do their work, driven to produce by the same kinds of obsessions and forces that can characterize romantic connection and passion. Certainly that seems to have been the case for the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, both in her pursuit of her artistic career and in her lifelong romantic connection to photographer Alfred Stieglitz. That connection, which began in 1916 when O’Keeffe was 28 (and Stieglitz 52 and married), led to a professional partnership and a multi-decade marriage, and did not end until his death in 1946, was captured and preserved in the roughly 25,000 letters sent between the two; My Faraway One, the first of two planned volumes of selected letters, was published last year.
I don’t want to reduce O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s relationship to any one issue, no more than one painting or photograph could illustrate each artist’s career and talents. Yet it seems clear that O’Keeffe’s 1929 decision to move back west—she had come to New York in 1918 to live and work with Stieglitz, and they had been married in 1924—and live in the burgeoning artistic community of Taos, New Mexico (at the home and compound of Mable Dodge Luhan) was a true turning point, a moment when the painter chose to follow her craft and muse (which the west unquestionably was to O’Keeffe). When Stieglitz wrote to her that “I am broken” (and sent her the above picture with one of his July 1929 letters), she responded with one of the most powerful statements of that artistic pursuit: “There is much life in me … I realized it would die if it could not move toward something … I chose coming away because here at least I feel good – and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside – and very still.” Their marriage survived and endured, and American art and culture were significantly enriched by O’Keeffe’s works. Not a bad love story all the way around.
Final lovers tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any artistic love stories you’d highlight?6/7 Memory Day nominee: Louise Erdrich, the Chippewa and German American poet, storyteller, and novelist whose interconnected series of multi-generational novels comprise some of the most significant American fiction of the last thirty years.
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