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Was Georgia O’Keeffe an angry woman?

I just came from breakfast with my dear friend Sharon, who listens generously to all my excitements (both coherent and incoherent) about Georgia O’Keeffe. By and by, she asked me: Was O’Keeffe angry?

Without hesitation, I answered, “no.”

And as I thought about it, what a brilliant question, because anger is an absence that I have just taken for granted, left unspoken. But the story of this absence is, indeed, very telling.

O’Keeffe had a lot to be angry about. For one thing, she had to listen to early critics (even the most complimentary ones) reduce her art to her gender. She’s a woman artist, her art cannot be about anything other than her orgasms, right? What else would she know about? For another thing, her husband cheated on her — quite publicly for almost two decades — with a younger woman who replaced the artist as first lady, so to speak, of his famous gallery.

She undoubtedly felt anger – who wouldn’t – but anger was not O’Keeffe’s reaction. Instead, she formulated other strategic responses.

In the first case, O’Keeffe decided not to dignify the critics with an answer. What they write, she decided, was about them, not her. For the rest of her life, she never wasted what she considered her most precious possession – her time – focusing on much other than the painting itself. And when the time was right, she wrote about her paintings on her own terms, in her two books, Georgia O’Keeffe and Some Memories of Drawings.

As for Stieglitz’s affair, we can glimpse her immediate response in the letters she wrote him, most of which are published in My Faraway One. We can see her struggling not to give in to anger; Stieglitz was being angry enough for both of them. And what – or who – helped her avoid getting hooked on anger was Tony Luhan, the Taos Pueblo husband of Mabel Dodge Luhan, with whom O’Keeffe was staying in Taos. Luhan’s laconic strength was a wonder and an inspiration for O’Keeffe, who learned from him how to ground herself rather than be reactive. O’Keeffe eventually decided to continue with Stieglitz as an affectionate companion, in a part-time relationship crafted to serve her need for a New York dealer and his need for a caretaker.

O’Keeffe was relentlessly ambitious from the very start. As an art student in New York, she realized that any distraction, like dancing late into the night, would impinge upon her prime directive: to paint. For her, anger was just another distraction.

Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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