When you speak of great artists, the use of their surname is enough to tell you who they were and what they achieved: Picasso, Van Gogh, Bosch, O’Keeffe…Wait, how many of you stopped at this surname and asked “Which O’Keeffe do you mean?”.
There was more than one O’Keeffe working in paint but her obscurity is not because her work is deemed as unimportant, but the overshadowing by her older sister ensured that Ida O’Keeffe was not been explored in the same detail.
Ahead of the first exhibition of Ida’s work in forty years at the Dallas Museum of Art later this year, https://www.dma.org/art/exhibitions/ida-o-keeffe-escaping-georgia-s-shadow , we have time to take a closer look at some of Ida’s work.
There is very little detail about Ida. The major biography I have on her sister has brief mentions of her, but nothing of real substance. What I have found is that she studied at Columbia University and achieved a master in Fine Arts but could not work full time as an artist, taking work in teaching and nursing to pay the bills.
It does seem that the sibling rivalry was not just limited to Georgia’s thought that there should only be one artist in the family. Letters and comments on the back of photographs by Stieglitz would indicate that he found his sister-in-law attractive and this may well have been partly the reason for Georgia’s lack of support. This image might well explain the start of the estrangement:
From realism to abstraction may seem an illogical step, but the influences from Europe impacted on art across the world, including the United States. This appears to be where Ida found her forte. The geometric shapes within the subject matter simply glow with the choice of colour palette and they are equal to any by the artists of that period.
This is a gorgeous painting of a starry night, but it is not on the canvas, but in the frame itself. The perspectives make you tilt as a viewer, but not as much as the two other characters! The girl reaches up and takes in the light, invigorating her at the same time. The animals watch, not the girl, but us the viewers. One plant is growing in this light and the symbolism is rife.
As with Georgia and her move to Mexico, Ida was also influenced by her environment as can be seen here. It will be interesting to see if the new exhibition has more work like this on display.
… and it all falls apart
After the 1950s, Ida’s life began to fall apart, according to the sources I have read. She found her creativity ceasing and she struggled to support herself financially. However, she still painted from her studio in Whittier, where she had moved to in the 1940s and her output from this time includes a wonderful nature painting called ‘The Banana Tree’ that rivals those of her sister.
This story from Whittier Daily News makes interesting reading about this painting and what Ida was doing in Whittier: https://www.whittierdailynews.com/2014/10/05/whittier-artist-emerges-from-shadow-of-her-sister-georgia-okeeffe/
Ida died in 1971, following a stroke. Not only was she subsequently forgotten about in the art world, but even Georgia spoke of her having a ‘wasted life’. Thankfully, the past four years has seen the curators at the Dallas Museum of Art bring together a wide range of paintings that should put the other O’Keeffe girl back in her rightful place in art history.