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09.21.09

Georgia O'Keeffe's Love Letters

The steamy correspondence between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz has been kept under seal for 20 years. Judith H. Dobrzynski reveals their epistolary romance. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

When Georgia O’Keeffe met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, sparks flew. O’Keeffe—nearly 24 years his junior—was an unknown, struggling to define her art; Stieglitz owned the famed Gallery 291, a cauldron of avant-garde art. Soon they became storied lovers.

Now we can hear the story in her words: Tucked into the catalogue for Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, a new blockbuster exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, are excerpts from recently unsealed letters—sometimes steamy, always emotional—that O’Keeffe wrote to the man who encouraged, marketed, photographed, married, and cheated on her.

View Our Gallery of O’Keeffe’s Art and Love Letters

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The exchange began in January 1916, when O’Keeffe, living in South Carolina, learned that a friend had sent her drawings to Stieglitz. At first, she sought his advice. Soon she was verbally flirting with him, and in June 1918, she moved from Texas to New York to be with him, though he was married. That summer, Stieglitz began shooting the shockingly frank nude photographs of O’Keeffe that made her famous, but led critics to see eroticism in her works where, she said, she had not intended it.

The couple married in 1924—and the correspondence dropped off until 1929, when O’Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico, seeking new artistic horizons and alleviating marital tensions. When O’Keeffe died in 1986, she left the letters, under seal for 20 years, to Yale, where Sasha Nicholas, a curatorial assistant at the Whitney, combed them for excerpts. They are published for the first time in the catalogue and, in part, here. All misspellings and mistakes in punctuation are O’Keeffe’s own.

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Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at The New York Times and at BusinessWeek, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York. She blogs about the arts at www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.