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Collection Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz Correspondence

Curator’s Note on the Context of the Correspondence

A biographical overview providing context to the letters written from Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1929-1947, written in November 2020 by Barbara Bair, Manuscript Division specialist in literature, culture, and the arts.

Photograph made at Lake George, N.Y. [The Shanty (O’Keeffe’s studio, Lake George). Alfred Stieglitz, 1923. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/89714813 and LC-USZ62-98100

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were both gifted and dedicated letter writers. They initially fell in love while corresponding copiously to one another by mail. In the period after Stieglitz first displayed O’Keeffe drawings at his influential gallery in Manhattan in 1916, to the time she resigned her position as an art teacher in Canyon, Texas, and moved to pursue her painting under Stieglitz’s patronage in New York, the two exchanged hundreds of letters. In a time long before social media or the Internet, they sometimes penned more than one missive to the other in a day. At the same time each also wrote to a broader network of sometimes mutual friends. Selected letters from the archives of the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which include samples of their early correspondence as well as items reaching into the period covered by this Library of Congress collection, are published in Sarah Greenough’s My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, 1915-1933 (Yale University Press, 2011). Other valuable sources of published O’Keeffe correspondence include Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (Simon & Shuster, 1990), which includes letters exchanged with feminist activist Anita Pollitzer, O’Keeffe’s friend from her art student days, and Sarah Greenough, Jack Cowart, and Juan Hamilton’s Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (National Gallery of Art, 1987).

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924 and lived primarily in Manhattan and at the Stieglitz family property at Lake George, New York. Beginning in 1929, O’Keeffe began a pattern of splitting her time in residence at Lake George and Manhattan and visiting, sometimes for lengthy periods, northern New Mexico, where she went to paint, primarily in the Taos, Alcalde, Ghost Ranch, Rio Chama valley and Abiquiu areas. Winters saw her return to Stieglitz in New York. During the time span of the letters in this collection, she also made trips to Canada, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Hawaii, as well as vacations in Maine and in various parts of the Southwest, Colorado, and California.

O’Keeffe first met Henwar Rodakiewicz in 1929 during her first extended stay in New Mexico, where he and his first wife, the wealthy writer-poet Marie Tudor Garland, had a ranch in Alcalde and were part of the circle of artists and writers who surrounded Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. O’Keeffe and Rodakiewicz had in common the fact that they were both married to much older partners who fostered them and provided them entre to important patrons of the arts and fellow intellectuals, and yet were of a different generation, raising issues for them as they forged their own creative paths into the future. O’Keeffe became good friends with both Rodakiewicz and Garland, took trips with them, and lived or visited at their H&M Ranch in order to paint.

Mabel Dodge Luhan was an established friend of Stieglitz from her time in New York, and she credited Stieglitz’s verbal treatises on art as strong influences upon her own aesthetic philosophy. She welcomed O’Keeffe and her travel companion Rebecca Strand during O’Keeffe’s first summer in New Mexico. Luhan was host in Taos to many of the painters, photographers, and writers who were part of the Stieglitz Circle of New York--including John Marin and Stieglitz protégés Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. Acquaintances intersected between New Mexico and New York, as Rodakiewicz was also befriended by Stieglitz and became a confidante. Meanwhile Luhan, Dorothy Brett, Freida Lawrence, and others of the Luhan circle in Taos visited Manhattan, and Stieglitz Circle artists, photographers, and art critics visited New Mexico, returning with enthusiasm for the potential of Southwestern themes in art. Like O’Keeffe, Andrew Dasburg, Marsden Hartley, Marin, Adams, and the Strands all created significant bodies of work based on Southwestern subjects.

In 1933-1936, Rodakiewicz worked with Strand and others in Mexico in the making of the acclaimed art film Redes (released in the United States as The Wave). During the period reflected in the correspondence from O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, he tried his hand at screenwriting, and took on several assignments in the documentary film industry, as well as in Hollywood. His marriage to Garland ended, and in 1936 he married Margaret “Peggy” Bok, whose former husband was heir to a publishing fortune. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were both warmly attached to Bok and her three children, as well as to Rodakiewicz’s mother, Erla, and their relationship with the Bok-Rodakiewicz family is reflected in the letters. O’Keeffe also maintained her connection with Garland, who remained a generous friend.

The letters also chart serious bouts of ill health endured by both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, including her hospitalizations and recoveries. Stieglitz suffered for nearly the last two decades of his life from a severe heart condition. His increasing frailty forced him in 1937 to abandon the making of photographs. He devoted his time primarily to managing the An American Place gallery in New York and welcoming a string of summertime guests to Lake George, including critic Paul Rosenfeld and others. The exhibits he directed reflected his loyalty to a small cadre of artists whom he had championed since the days of his earlier gallery, 291, including Marin, O’Keeffe, and Arthur Dove, with the later addition of photography by Adams.

O’Keeffe’s work was shown at An American Place on an annual basis, but she also received increasing acclaim and broader reputation with exhibits at several museums. As she forged a more independent path in management of her own career, she began taking on her own commissions, including significant commercial assignments for a flower painting at the Elizabeth Arden beauty salon in New York, and another for a series of natural images funded by the advertising firm for the Hawaiian (Dole) Pineapple Company in Hawaii. The Southwest increasingly captivated her, and many of her letters to Rodakiewicz contain poetic descriptions of what she is painting and seeing in her summers in New Mexico, and her strong and soulful attachment to the landscapes and natural world near her residences at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. She also shares her sensibility to the cityscapes seen from her penthouse apartment in New York.

When O’Keeffe became enamored of the Piedra Lumbre and Chama River area, she was not the first who beheld its beauty or felt the power of place, nor the first to translate its natural world into art. The area had a long and rich Spanish land grant and Native American history, which included the influence of Catholicism and the spiritual beliefs and interpretations of the Genízaro Pueblo Indians of Abiquiu, as well as the introduction of ranch culture. Though she valued her sense of artistic isolation, she frequently had visitors, and her life was peopled with locals who assisted and helped her, working as housekeepers, repair people, storekeepers, companions and drivers, and as gardening and wrangler staff at Ghost Ranch.

Near the end of Stieglitz’s life, Rodakiewicz frequently had meals with the art promoter and famed photographer in New York, and he was among the close group of friends who looked after Stieglitz’s well-being. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, he visited O’Keeffe in Abiquiu to film a segment about her life and artwork for a 1947 documentary that was intended to boost the tourist economy in the Southwest after its downturn during the World War II era. The encounter did not go well from O’Keeffe’s viewpoint. It left a permanent rift in their relationship, broken only by later sporadic notes that are not reflected in this collection.