Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe

by Laurie Lisle

ISBN: 9780671016661

Publisher Washington Square Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One: Sun Prairie

Late in the autumn of 1887, the Sun Prairie Countryman, a rural Wisconsin newspaper, briefly noted that a baby girl had arrived two days before on Tuesday, November 15, in the farmhouse of Ida and Francis O'Keeffe. The birth, assisted by a country doctor in the O'Keeffe home, was the second for the young couple. The twenty-three-year-old Ida named her infant Georgia Totto for her patrician Hungarian grandfather, George Totto. Georgia, it appeared, would have Ida's dark hair, and her round face was pure Irish, like her father's. The variegated pigment of her eyes suggested the mingled bloodlines of brown-eyed maternal forebears and blue-eyed paternal ones.

Georgia was born into a rapidly industrializing world. The country's longest suspension bridge, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan, had recently opened, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris was still under construction, due to be completed in two years. The American government in Washington, under the reformist leadership of President Grover Cleveland, was attempting to exert some control over capitalist monopolies and to bring order to the grim, oppressive factories where immigrant laborers often erupted into violence and strikes. But in the western part of the country, the last great Indian war was still to be fought against federal troops.

Little of this turmoil affected the pastoral life on the Sun Prairie farm, however. It remained like farm life everywhere, suspended in a timeless ritual governed by the rhythms of nature. The newborn baby was kept indoors during the long, dark, icy northern winter. When the snow finally melted, the sunlight became warm, and the prairie was touched by the bright green of spring, Georgia was carried outside for the first time. She was placed on a handmade patchwork quilt spread on the new grass and propped up by pillows. Those very first moments of seeing in the brilliant sunlight became indelibly etched in her memory: She precisely remembered the quilt's patterns of flowers on black and tiny red stars as well as the startling blond looks of her mother's friend.

Yet another perception during those minutes in the pool of yellow sunshine was not so pleasant. Georgia, less than a year old, was acutely aware that two other children playing on the patterned quilt were getting all the admiration. One of them was her older brother, Francis Jr., two years old, the firstborn child with dark Totto eyes, who was adorable in his mama's eyes. When he was born, weighing a plump ten and a half pounds, it had been heralded as a grand event by the Countryman. As Georgia crawled around the cotton quilt, she felt a sharp sting of neglect. "Why doesn't anyone think I'm beautiful?" she recalled wondering many years later. She squirmed off the quilt, she remembered, and was impatiently thrust back onto it.

Georgia's was a uniquely American heritage - three of her grandparents were immigrants, and the fourth was descended from one of the earliest colonists in the New World. Her O'Keeffe grandparents had settled in Sun Prairie first during the initial large wave of immigration to America. Pierce O'Keeffe and his wife, Catherine Mary, and other family members left for the American frontier when their family wool business in Ireland faltered. They arrived in Milwaukee through the chain of Great Lakes, then traveled directly west by oxcart for about eighty miles inland to the young settlement of Sun Prairie in the southern part of the state. In July 1848 Pierce O'Keeffe bought his first acres along the Koshkonong Creek from the federal government for less than a dollar an acre. As he turned Virgin forest into rolling farmland, his wife, Kate, gave birth to four sons: Boniface, Peter, Francis, and Bernard.

The O'Keeffes began to homestead just two months after Wisconsin ceased being a territory and entered the union as a state. Meanwhile, the last of the Winnebago Indians were being driven westward as the arriving farmers cut down the thick forests, plowed the hunting trails under, and decimated the deer. More and more land was being laid out in neatly numbered lots, and roads increasingly followed the straight lines of the surveyor's measure. At the same time, railroads were inching into the newly settled regions to transport the wheat harvests and the iron ore to other parts of the country.

About ten years after the O'Keeffes had settled in Sun Prairie in 1848, George Victor Totto and his wife bought land next to the O'Keeffe farm. Whereas the Irish family had emigrated to Wisconsin because of a business failure in the old country, George Totto had fled to America because of his belief in liberty. A count from Budapest, he had fought in a doomed Hungarian uprising against Austrian rule as an aide-de-camp to the revolutionary hero Lajos Kossuth. Family legend has it that Totto was ransomed from jail with the family jewels. In any case, he escaped to America and wound up in Sauk City, Wisconsin, later known as Prairie de Sac, where another Hungarian political refugee of a flamboyant stripe had bought land.

Totto's wife, Isabel, prided herself on her heritage as well. One of her granddaughters later uncovered many European coats of arms designed for both grandparents' families. Her roots, as deep as any in America, could be traced to a Dutchman who arrived in New York in 1637. Two hundred years later, one of his descendants, Charles Wyckoff , fathered Isabel and her younger sister Jane. Wyckoff, a hotelkeeper in the East, apparently had business troubles, and, after his wife died, he moved with his teen-age daughters and a new wife to Sauk City to try his luck at running a hotel on the frontier. Wyckoff hadn't been in Wisconsin long when a cholera epidemic broke out. Although he made plans to move his family out, a day before their departure he came down with the disease and died shortly afterwards.

It was in Sauk City that the exiled George Totto and the orphaned Isabel Wyckoff met and fell in love. In the twenty-five-year-old Isabel's eyes, the pedigreed Hungarian patriot ten years her senior was a cut above the other marriage prospects on the frontier. Formal photographs show that Totto was a thin-lipped, rather homely man with a light brown beard and that Isabel with her long, raw-boned face, could never have been called pretty. The poise and good breeding of the tall, dark-haired girl with the eastern education appealed to the European, and in May 1855 the two were married.

A year after the wedding their first child, Alletta, was born. Her birth was followed in rapid succession by those of Josephine, Charles, Ida, Leonore, and George. Meanwhile, the Tottos had moved to Sun Prairie, where the 1870 census revealed that their farm was larger and more abundant than the neighboring O'Keeffe property. But farming in the harsh midwestern climate proved too difficult for George and Isabel. In the 1870s Totto gave up and returned to Hungary, supposedly to claim his share of the family fortune. Totto may have visited his family in Wisconsin again, but he eventually died in his homeland, still worshiped, in absentia, by his daughters. Left to fend for themselves, Isabel and her six sons and daughters moved to nearby Madison in the early 1880s. The town had been a high-brow university town for more than forty years, and she must have imagined that it held better prospects for her children.

Georgia's father, Francis Calixtus O'Keeffe, was around thirty when he began to drive his mother's buggy the twelve miles to Madison to court the fourth Totto child, Ida Ten Eyck, a poised, brown-eyed teenager. Frank had known Ida all his life as the little girl on the neighboring farm. Now Ida had grown tall like her mother and developed a more handsome version of her mother's dark looks. Frank was a wiry, good-natured farmer with fair Irish skin and curly hair. His schooling had stopped in adolescence when his father died and he had to help his mother and brothers run the farm. Then in October 1883, the brother closest in age, Peter, died of tuberculosis. It is likely that his brothers death startled Frank into the realization that his life was rapidly passing, because about this time he proposed to Ida.

Ida's family favored the match, partly because Frank wanted to buy the Totto pastures in Sun Prairie. But Ida's two older sisters weren't married, and she had little inclination to wed and return to her childhood home of Sun Prairie, a simple farm community of a few hundred people without even a library. Ida was a serious girl who kept a diary, loved books, and dreamed of becoming a doctor. It was also commonplace at the time to avoid marriage to someone with tuberculosis in the family in the mistaken belief that the highly infectious disease was hereditary. Ida, however, was young, obedient, and fond of Frank, so she reluctantly accepted his proposal. A few weeks after she turned twenty, they were married. The Sun Prairie newspaper carried the announcement:

Wedded - At the residence of the bride's mother, in the city of Madison, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1884, by the Rev. J. B. Pratt, Mr. Francis O'Keeffe of Sun Prairie to Miss Ida Totto, of Madison. The contracting parties in the nuptial affair above chronicled are well and favorably known hereabouts, and the best wishes of the community are extended to Frank and his charming bride.

The Tottos considered themselves to be a notch above the O'Keeffes because of their lineage and cultivation, and the wedding was entirely a Totto affair. Although Frank was a Roman Catholic, the Tottos' Episcopal clergyman officiated. And even though either of Frank's two brothers could have signed the marriage certificate, an older brother and sister of Ida's were the witnesses. Throughout their marriage Frank would appear to be in Ida's shadow, even though he was eleven years older than she. People often echoed Ida's early doubts and wondered why a woman who carried herself like an aristocrat had married a humble Irishman.

After the wedding, Ida had no more time to pen her thoughts in her diary. Within six months she was pregnant, and for the next eight years she was either pregnant or nursing an infant. Interestingly, only the births of the first two, Francis and Georgia, were entered into the public record. A few weeks before Georgia's second birthday a sister was born, named Ida Ten Eyck for their mother. Sixteen months later another sister arrived: Anita Natalie, with a tiny round face and large dark eyes. And when Anita was only sixteen months old a brother, Alexius Wyckoff, was born.

Ida, as a mother, above all enjoyed spending evenings and Sunday afternoons reading to her little children. In her enthusiasm for books, Mama seemed to make them come alive, Georgia recalled many afterwards, and she adored listening to the warm, glowing tones of her mothers beautiful, well-bred voice. Since the stories were picked for the benefit of her eldest, Francis, the first ones that Georgia heard were boys' books such as James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales about pioneer days and cowboy-and-Indian adventures in the state of Texas and the New Mexico territory.

Reading aloud was one of the ways that Ida showed her interest in the mental development of her offspring - the daughters as well as the sons. Education for women was a family tradition: Her own mother had been educated in the East, her sisters had become schoolteachers, and she had joined a group of Sun Prairie women with intellectual and charitable interests who gave themselves the lofty name of The King's Daughters. Furthermore, Ida took great interest in the curriculum of the nearby schoolhouse, and the schoolteacher usually boarded with the O'Keeffes. Ida quietly had high expectations for her daughters. "Our mother had a very good opinion of herself, and she wanted all of us to be the same way," Georgia told a younger sister later. When in time mama tried to provide the girls with private schools and special lessons, she was motivated, in part, by her own disappointment at having ended her schooling too soon as well as by her desire that her daughters be able to care for themselves. Since all of Ida's daughters but one became professional women, her influence on them is evident. What's more, since they also had an extremely low birthrate - only producing two children among the five of them - it's likely that they also sensed her dissatisfaction with domesticity.

In fact, Ida seemed to spend more time cultivating her children's minds than cuddling them in an affectionate, maternal way. That kind of mothering apparently was taken over by others in the large household, particularly by Ida's aunt, Jane Varney. Aunt Jenny, as she was known, had been a teen-aged bride when she went to California during the Gold Rush in a covered wagon. But she soon was widowed and returned to Wisconsin on a sailing ship via Cape Horn to help care for the children of her sister Isabel. When her niece, Ida, gave birth to her first child, Aunt Jenny moved to the O'Keeffe household and oversaw it with a stern eye for the rest of her life. The presence of the small, alert woman (some said a busybody) in the family freed Ida to continue to pursue her quest for self-education, and gave her the chance to visit her mother and friends in Madison frequently and even to go to the opera in Milwaukee on occasion.

By the time Georgia was a four-and-a-half-year-old solemn brown-haired girl - remembered by one of her teachers as a "little, dark-skinned, wide-eyed, spritelike child" - she had four brothers and sisters to compete with in the struggle for the grown-ups' attention. She believed that her goodlooking older brother was her mother's favorite, and that her affectionate little sister, Ida, was the other family pet. Whether or not those perceptions were true, Georgia adapted her early behavior to them and remained convinced of them all her life. But because of the numbers of grandmothers, aunts, and uncles in the extended family, Georgia apparently got all the attention she needed, which was probably less than that required by the ordinary child in any case. "I was not a favorite child, but I didn't mind at all," she insisted many years later.

Until the death of Grandmother Totto - when Georgia, her eldest granddaughter, was six - the girl used to visit the Totto household on the edge of Madison's Lake Monona, where her maiden aunts and bachelor uncles lived. Georgia probably knew best her Grandmother O'Keeffe, who lived on the adjoining farm until the age of eighty-five, when Georgia was almost ten. Both her grandmothers - the deserted Grandmother Totto and the widowed Grandmother O'Keeffe - were strong matriarchs who had kept their large families together after the loss of their men. In Sun Prairie Kate O'Keeffe was highly respected for her sharp intelligence and deeply loved for her sweet nature, according to her lengthy obituaries.


Excerpted from "Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe" by Laurie Lisle. Copyright © 1997 by Laurie Lisle. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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