Georgia before O’Keeffe

An icon in the making. Georgia O’Keeffe 
Woman with blue hat, 1916-1917
Watercolour, gouache and graphite on paper

O’Keeffe may have created this watercolour for classroom use. The work demonstrates the application of flat, stylized designs of fashion illustration. In this same period, the magazine Vanity Fair published similar stylized illustrations by O’Keeffe, who was searching for additional ways to turn her art skills into income. 

Hilda Belcher
The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O’Keeffe), 1907
Watercolour and gouache on cream laid paper, with JW watermark, mounted on paperboard

To pose for Hilda Belcher, who had also studied at the Art Students League of New York, O’Keeffe wore a stylish checkered dress that she most likely made for herself, in the black and white palette she would favour throughout her life. This watercolour, with its tour-de-force detailing of the dress, won Belcher membership in the male-dominated New York Water Colour Club. Several years later, a female writer composed a love poem to the then unknown sitter shown in the image; it reads in part:

”Could you know, did you guess/Such a daring rhythmic dress/Gleaming here, darkening there,/Would but render you more rare?”

Eugene E. Speicher
Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1908
Oil on canvas

When Eugene Speicher, an older student at the Art Students League, asked O’Keeffe to model for him, she wore a three-piece outfit associated with the so-called New Woman: a white shirtwaist, black skirt and jacket, and black bow at her neck. This combination allowed women to move with greater ease than in conventional Victorian dresses and was a style of reform dress widely endorsed by budding women artists and professionals. In 1948, Life magazine ran an image of the sixty-one-old O’Keeffe posed next to the portrait (in a different frame), noting, ”she has changed from an unknown youngster to one of the foremost painters in the U.S.” Her personal style, however, had remained the same. 

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, Brooklyn Museum

July 22nd, 2017


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