Shining the spotlight on Georgia’s Sister, Ida O’Keeffe

  • “Creation,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “The Oregon Coast,” a 1937 drypoint print by Ida O’Keeffe. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Star Gazing in Texas,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “The Fish,” 1935 print by Ida O’Keeffe. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Toad Stool,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme III,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme IV,” oil on canvas. Courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme V,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II,” oil on canvas circa 1931-32. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “The Royal Oak of Tennessee,” oil on canvas. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • Ida O’Keeffe, seen here in a gelatin silver print by Alfred Stieglitz, her brother-in-law. In the 1930s, Ida’s sister, Georgia O’Keeffe, demanded her husband stop promoting Ida’s work. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz/courtesy National Gallery of Art

  • Ida O’Keeffe and her more famous sister, Georgia, in a photo by Georgia’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz. In the 1930s, Georgia demanded her husband stop promoting Ida’s paintings. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz/courtesy National Gallery of Art

For the Gazette
Published: 8/1/2019 10:58:26 AM
Modified: 8/1/2019 10:58:13 AM

Opulently oversized flowers, sun-drenched desert landscapes: Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are widely known, well loved, highly regarded and deeply interpreted. Much less attention, however, has been devoted to artwork done by one of her younger siblings.

The story of Georgia’s artistic sister, Ida, is revealed in an extensive exhibition now showing at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” focuses on the varied work that Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe (1889-1961) did. Bringing together her prints, watercolors, and oil paintings, and adding family photographs to the mix, the exhibit raises appreciation of Ida’s work, poses questions about her life, and encourages speculative “what ifs.”

Piecing together Ida’s life story and tracking down her scattered works became a curatorial adventure for Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Canterbury’s initial view of Ida’s “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II” in a private collection inspired her to focus an exhibit on the relatively unknown artist.

Ida’s 1931-32 abstract painting of a Cape Cod lighthouse was part of a series that offered a classic “compare and contrast” with sister Georgia’s famous flower paintings and desert landscapes. Canterbury located three more lighthouse paintings (one at a museum, two in a private collection). But most of Ida’s life — and art — remained obscure.

What flung open the doors of discovery was the power of crowdsourcing. A public call in 2014 from the Dallas Museum of Art for information about Ida coaxed treasures out of obscurity. One man promptly reported that he had a box filled with Ida’s records and scrapbooks.

“Those materials provided the scaffolding for her exhibition history,” says Canterbury. “It was a motherlode of primary information.”

Two years later, a unique red lighthouse painting, “Variation on a Lighthouse Theme VI,” emerged; Neil Lane, a jewelry designer who owned it, had found it at a flea market. And in May 2018, a woman in the Dallas/Fort Worth area led the museum to another painting that was just sitting in her sister’s closet in Roswell, New Mexico. 

Ida’s early years parallel her better-known sister’s biography. She was the third of seven O’Keeffe siblings, coming after Francis and Georgia, followed by three more sisters and one more brother. Their mother, Ida Ten Eyck Totto, raised her daughters to be strong-willed women and emphasized the importance of education leading to a career.

But she also emphasized art, and both the maternal and the paternal grandmothers of the family painted still lifes and floral subjects. Even as the family struggled financially, all the O’Keeffe girls received formal art instruction.

By the early 1920s, four of the five O’Keeffe sisters were frequent guests at the Lake George, New York, summer house of Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and New York City gallery owner who was also Georgia’s promoter and eventual husband. Ida was a delightful houseguest who arranged flowers, did housework, and even shot a squirrel that the cook prepared for dinner. Georgia smiled on Ida with affection and supported her artistic efforts.

In turn, Stieglitz praised Ida’s paintings to his protégé, art critic Paul Rosenfeld. And in 1925, Ida became engaged to Rosenfeld, who could well have played the role of “Ida’s Stieglitz.”

Sibling rivalry, jealousyand the ‘ick factor’

The engagement ended almost as soon as it began. Rosenfeld was romantically involved with other women, and the situation may have been muddied by Georgia’s meddling, Stieglitz’s jealousy, and Rosenfeld’s desire to please his mentor.

Though innovative as a photographer and influential as a gallerist, Stieglitz was inappropriate as an in-law. “The #MeToo movement would have crucified Stieglitz,” Canterbury acknowledges. She notes that while Ida treated his unwanted attentions like a joke, “there are instances in which Stieglitz appears to have crossed a line that even made her feel uneasy and made it difficult for her to laugh off.”

The “ick factor” emerges in nicknames Stieglitz invented for himself and Ida — “Crow Feather” and “Little Red Apple” — and escalates to cringe-worthy with his 1924 photograph of a crow feather piercing an apple. Perhaps, as Canterbury suggests, Ida’s response to being called “Little Red Apple” can be seen in her 1926 still life composition with three equally-sized bright yellow apples (Stieglitz, Georgia, and Ida?).

By the 1930s, it was clear that Georgia did not want Stieglitz to support either Ida or a third sister who painted, Catherine O’Keeffe Klenert, by showing their art. When the two younger sisters had separate solo shows in New York in 1933, Georgia furiously demanded that they stop exhibiting on what she considered her home turf.

Catherine, intimidated, stopped painting entirely. Ida, a sturdier soul, persisted. However, information that Canterbury gleaned from the transcript of an artist interview reveals that in 1935 Stieglitz actively obstructed Ida’s career. “The artist recounted how Stieglitz called up a dealer who was going to give Ida a solo show and told him not to do the show as there was only one O’Keeffe, and they all knew it was Georgia …”

Ida never married, and her independence demanded that she balance her desire to pursue painting with her need to make a living. She worked in nursing when teaching jobs and sales in art were insufficient. “My impression is that while nursing income provided her some financial stability, as a vocation it did not inspire her,” notes Canterbury. Ida continued her artwork, whenever she could.

And what of Ida’s art? The lighthouse series, in particular, suggests an artist rigorously experimenting with abstraction and exploring the Dynamic Symmetry of early twentieth-century Modernist art. And that, in turn, prompts a series of questions.

What if Georgia had encouraged — not raged against — her sister’s art? What if Stieglitz had supported — not sabotaged — Ida’s opportunities in New York? What if Ida had married Rosenfeld, who was well positioned to promote her career? And what if she had been free to do art full time, unhampered by financial need? Would Ida, like her older sister, have invented her own distinctive style? Would there be two iconic O’Keeffes in the art history books?

My best guess is that Ida did not suffer in Georgia’s shadow. She seems to have sought the sunny side of the street, and lived her life, enjoying many interests. But we’ll never know. We can only look at traces of Ida’s life and art — and speculate. “Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” poses intriguing, but unanswerable, questions about life, art, family dynamics and individual destiny.

“Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow is on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through October 6. For more information on the exhibit, and on ticket prices and visiting hours, go to clarkart.edu.




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