When the twenty-four-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe joined her family in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the summer of 1912, she was sickly, and she had all but given up her ambitions to become a professional painter.
O’Keeffe had shown artistic promise as a young girl growing up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents sent her to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the Art Students League in New York. There, under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase, she distinguished herself by winning the school’s still life painting prize in 1908 for Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). It’s a perfectly competent piece, following Chase’s style. But O’Keeffe was probably right to imagine that naturalistic oil-on-canvas still lifes like this one would not win her the same levels of fame that her teacher had achieved a generation earlier. By 1910, O’Keeffe had taken a job as a commercial artist in Chicago. She was chronically ill, her father was bankrupt, and a career as a painter seemed impossible.
By 1910, O’Keeffe had taken a job as a commercial artist in Chicago. She was chronically ill, her father was bankrupt, and a career as a painter seemed impossible.
That all changed in Charlottesville. After recovering from a case of the measles, in 1912 O’Keeffe enrolled in a watercolor class with Alon Bement, a Columbia University professor who was teaching in Charlottesville at the time. The effect was profound. “Always I had wanted to be an artist, but now I decided to give it up,” O’Keeffe later wrote. “Several years later I happened to be at the University of Virginia, and I went to a lecture on art . . . it gave me new inspiration.” Bement’s instruction completely reshaped O’Keeffe’s understanding of painting, and her time in Charlottesville marked the beginning of her preference for increasingly abstract—and sensuous—compositions.
Bement introduced O’Keeffe to methods of abstract composition espoused by his own teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, one of the chief proponents behind the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States and a fellow Columbia professor. Dow taught that artists should prioritize depicting their inner feelings and sensations over recording their surroundings. He believed the best way for artists to portray the interiority of the soul was to paint compositions stripped of every element except for simple arrangements of lines and color using Eastern techniques like notan, the Japanese system of arranging lights and darks in harmony. Bement used Dow’s influential Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers (1899) as his textbook in the courses he taught O’Keeffe.
She returned to UVA five summers afterward, serving as an instructor from 1913 to 1916. This period, one of the most formative in her development as an artist, was the subject of a recent exhibition at the University’s Fralin Museum of Art.
O’Keeffe’s early UVA paintings reveal Dow’s influence. Untitled (Rotunda - University of Virginia) and Untitled (Law Building - University of Virginia) both from 1912–14, depict familiar landmarks on the school’s grounds, but flattened into a simplified schema. “A picture, then, may be said to be in its beginning actually a pattern of lines,” Dow wrote in Compositions in a section on landscapes. “Could the art student have this fact in view at the outset, it would save him much time and anxiety. Nature will not teach him composition.” O’Keeffe adheres to Dow’s instructions in the way she divides space in Rotunda and Law Building. Thomas Jefferson’s red brick and white-columned neoclassical buildings lend themselves well to her stark yet dynamic compositions.
O’Keeffe wrote in her diary that hikes and plein air painting excursions in Virginia “started many things” within her.
O’Keeffe studied with Dow himself at Columbia in the winter of 1914. At the same time, she sought other teachers. Among the books then in her library were Wassily Kandinsky’s The Art of Spiritual Harmony (1914) and W. A. Lambeth’s Trees, and how to Know Them: A Manual with Analytical and Dichotomous Keys of the Principal Forest Trees of the South (1911). The former fed her growing fascination with depicting interiority, while the latter kept her firmly rooted in a study of the natural world. During each visit to Charlottesville, she read voluminously and hiked the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. In her maturity, O’Keeffe wedded the two interests in her famous paintings of bones and flowers, works that, while ostensibly based on nature, also carry overtones of what some have seen as a feminine approach to depicting the cavernous spaces of the soul.
Later UVA works show O’Keeffe’s movement toward her distinctive style. Inside the Tent While at U. of Virginia (1916)—painted from a sketch drawn on an overnight hiking trip in the Blue Ridge—contrasts the warmly lit interior of the tent with the cool darkness outside. O’Keeffe combines Dow’s emphasis on lines as the foundation of composition with Kandinsky’s insistence that intense colors should express the artist’s feelings. Inside the Tent has a triangular composition, with a central section of blue flanked by flaming oranges and reds. The bright colors of the walls protecting the interior of the tent from the darkness of a summer night give the painting a womb-like quality. O’Keeffe wrote in her diary that such hikes and plein air painting excursions “started many things” within her.
These “many things” made their appearance beyond the comfort of Charlottesville. O’Keeffe’s mother died in the summer of 1916, and the young painter left the city for good. But even as she moved on to the Southwest and New York, her memories of Virginia remained. O’Keeffe kept the watercolors she painted in Bement’s class until her death in 1986.
“I had things in my head not like what I had been taught, not like what I had seen,” she wrote of her time at UVA. “Shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and start to say the things that were my own.”