Newly Public Letters Show Georgia O’Keeffe’s Quest for Independence

The Library of Congress has acquired a collection of letters from the artist to filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz

georgia o'keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1919. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

Georgia O’Keeffe scribbled notes to her friend filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz while riding on trains, while vacationing with family at Lake George in New York, and while spending time at Ghost Ranch, her beloved home in New Mexico. Years after Rodakiewicz died in 1976, a stash of the letters O’Keeffe wrote to Rodakiewicz was found in the home once owned by Rodakiewicz’s widow. And as Elizabeth Blair reports for NPR, the collection has now been acquired by the Library of Congress, making it available to the public for the first time.

Spanning from 1929—the year they met—to 1947, the set of mostly handwritten letters also includes notes from Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband. The letters cover an important period in O’Keeffe’s life, testifying to the flourishing of her career and her efforts to distance herself from Stieglitz’s influence.

When she met Stieglitz in 1916, O’Keeffe was a 28-year-old art teacher in Texas and he was a 52-year-old photographer and art promoter of international renown. Stieglitz became her mentor, champion and, in 1924, her husband. He supported her financially, introduced her to his friends in the New York art world, and exhibited her artworks in his gallery. Fairly quickly, O’Keeffe attracted lavishing attention; by the mid- 1920s, O’Keeffe was being hailed as one of America’s most important modernist painters. And, as her epistolary correspondence with Rodakiewicz shows, she wanted independence.

In 1936, for instance, O’Keeffe wrote to the filmmaker to tell him that she had received an order for “a big flower painting” from Elizabeth Arden, the woman behind the pioneering cosmetics brand. “Got it myself,” she writes proudly of the commission. “Now I’ve got to get the painting done. Maybe I’ve been absurd about wanting to do a big flower painting, but I’ve wanted to do it and that is that. I’m going to try. Wish me luck.”

In spite of her apparent self-doubt, O’Keeffe had by this point been making her iconic flower paintings—swirling, vibrant depictions of flora at close range—for some years. But this commission was special: It was her first commercial order, and marked an important step in her goal to secure more of her own commissions, independent of Stieglitz.

Barbara Bair, manuscript curator with the Library of Congress, tells NPR’s Blair that the Arden commission was also “significant for where it would be shown—a salon for women.”

“Women became O’Keeffe’s biggest fans and patrons,” Bair explains. “Arden, who had money, was endorsing her.”

From 1929 onward, O’Keeffe made frequent trips to the deserts of New Mexico, which offered new sources of inspiration. “I am painting an old horses head that I picked out of some red earth,” she writes to Rodakiewicz in 1936, referencing a motif that began appearing frequently in her work. “It is quite pink and all the soft delicate parts have been broken off.” The dusty, burnished landscapes of the Southwest not only fascinated her, but also expanded the physical distance between her and Stieglitz, who the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke writes was becoming “increasingly overbearing.”

“She’s responding so well to the beautiful reds and oranges of the desert,” Bair says in an interview with TIME’s Katie Reilly. “We get a lot of the feeling of expansiveness that she’s experiencing, that she’s broken free.”

The newly acquired collection also offers a glimpse into her relationship with Rodakiewicz, an enduring confidante with whom she confided her worries to, but also, her joys. In one 1944 letter, for instance, she describes the Pedernal Mountain that loomed before her studio in New Mexico. “Yesterday, you could see every tree on it,” she writes to Rodakiewicz, “and last night—I thought to myself—It is the most beautiful night of the world—with the moon almost full—and everything so very still.”

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