Georgia O’Keeffe: The Lake George Years
It was over the course of sixteen summers here that one of 20th-century America's most characteristic painters began to develop her artistic and personal style
by Marisa Muratori
ALTHOUGH SHE IS CONSIDERED to be primarily a painter of the American Southwest, it was during more than a decade of summers at Lake George that Georgia O’Keeffe found the artistic direction that would eventually establish her as one of the most characteristic American painters of the 20th century. From 1918 until 1934, with her husband, the photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe visited and painted at Oaklawn and The Hill, his family’s summer properties just beyond the north end of Lake George Village. Her first flower paintings—with the powerful sexual imagery that she would deny all her life—were completed during this period, as were many of the works for which she is now best known and most widely celebrated. Paintings from these early years of her public notice were well represented in last winter’s O’Keeffe centenary exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, a massive touring show organized by the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and due to open March 30 for a three-month run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. From the Lake George works, it is possible to trace a steady maturing of the promise Stieglitz glimpsed in the early water-colors that first drew him to the tempestuous young painter whose life he would share for thirty years.
When Georgia O’Keeffe’s art was first introduced to him on January 1, 1916, his fifty-second birthday, Alfred Stieglitz was depressed by an unsatisfactory marriage and the conviction that, at middle age, his creative life was finished. Her friend Anita Pollitzer had brought some of O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings to his 291 Gallery in New York; Stieglitz recognized their quality at once and scheduled an exhibition. O’Keeffe, then not quite thirty and making her living principally as a teacher, greeted the news of her first New York show with typical reticence, insisting that the drawings not be shown, but Stieglitz prevailed.
By the time of her second show at the 291 in 1917, the attraction between the urban intellectual and the temperamental young Midwesterner had blossomed. Despite his marital status, Stieglitz obtained for O’Keeffe an invitation from his mother to Oaklawn, and the relationship quickly developed. On either side of a letter addressed from Lake George to Stieglitz’s niece in August 1918, the lovers were effusive: “There never was such perfection between two of the opposite sex,” he wrote. “I was never so happy in my whole life,” she wrote. Rejuvenated, Stieglitz began work on his remarkable Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, which eventually comprised some 300 photographs, many of them taken at Lake George. While her art had already begun to gain widespread recognition, it was through the Portrait that O’Keeffe first became a public figure, a newspaper personality of the post-World War I flapper era. It is easy to see why. There is an earthy, almost brazen quality to the photographs, those of her face and hands as well as the famous full-body nudes. With the Portrait was born the mythic persona that O’Keeffe, with characteristic ambivalence, would alternately encourage and reject for the rest of her life.
The Lake George years were an important time for Stieglitz’s renown as well, the period during which, through his magazine Camera Work and a succession of exhibitions at his New York art galleries, he helped expose a reluctant public to the revolutionary wave of abstract and surrealist art from Europe. American artists who also chose to break the constraints of naturalism and Romanticism—Alfred Dove, John Marin and Marsden Hartley, among others—gathered around the magnetic couple at their Lake George retreat, where O’Keeffe and Stieglitz freely acknowledged their creative debts to one another and carried on a dialogue on the contrasting male and female points of view.
Many older Lake George residents remember Stieglitz and O’Keeffe walking in the village daily for the mail, both dressed in black. James Parrott’s father owned the miniature golf course below the Fort William Henry Hotel where Stieglitz and his entourage of New York artists and intellectuals often played. “Everybody in town knew he was something, but didn’t know what exactly,” says Parrott. “I got a chance to play golf with him almost every morning. We’d talk about all kinds of things and I had to keep track of his golf score, because he’d keep changing it.” O’Keeffe often accompanied the men around the course, but she usually declined to play.
“I’d never seen a relationship like that,” Parrott remembers. “I had no way to judge them, except I thought this must be the way artistic people from New York behave. You got the feeling they were each living in their own world. But you could see they they understood each other. For example, he’d say, ‘Would you liked play golf with us?’ And she’d say no, and you’d know there was not going to be any persuasion thing going on like with most couples. Boy, when she said no, that was no.”
Parrott again encountered O’Keeffe in 1950, at her last show at An American Place. The artist was aloof at first, but warmed to her visitor when he explained his Lake George connection. By then, Parrott had developed his own interest in photography, and O’Keeffe invited
him to Taos to photograph her. “Eventually I got talking to her about [Stieglitz’s] photography. We got into his pioneering various areas of it, Ik skin tone, and she said, ‘Well, you must go down to the Metropolitan Museum and see some of these portraits he’s done of me.’ ” With a note from O’Keeffe, Parrott visited the collection. “They ushered me into a little room and brought in these 8-by-10 prints, and they were nude studies of her—he’d been working on the skin tones—and boy, he finally developed a black and white technique that just awed me.”
A great deal has been written about O’Keeffe’s dissatisfaction at Lake George with the demands of keeping house, dealing with the large Stieglitz family and all the distractions that kept her from her art. She is said to have felt closed in by the lugubrious wooded hills of the summer landscape, as opposed to the grand vistas of the west, writing that it was monotonous and “too green.” It was always one of the reasons she gave for her eventual move, but to a certain extent her letters, as compiled by Sarah Greenough, belie this notion. Especially when she and Stieglitz were alone during the off season, she often wrote to friends of delight at being back at the lake after a period of time in New York or even once from New Mexico, as when she wrote back to Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1929, “It is wonderful to be here and with my funny little Stieglitz—He is grand … I wonder how I was ever able to stay away so long.” According to Juan Hamilton, companion and aide during her last few years at Abiquiu, New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s troubles with living at Lake George stemmed from a lack of privacy. “Had Stieglitz been willing to build a house [of their own] in Lake George, she may possibly have stayed there,” he says. Toward the end of her life, “when we would look at Stieglitz’s photographs, she would talk about it. Particularly after Stieglitz’s mother died, she would go up [to Lake George] early in the spring to get the house cleaned up. The furniture was all covered and the dishes were all dirty; they’d have to chase the mice out of the house, get the water turned on.” Of her housekeeping and gardening responsibilities, O’Keeffe once wrote, “I have decided that next summer I am going to tent on that 366th island that they talk about here—the one that only comes up for leap year—with the hope that there won’t be anything on it to attend to.” But despite her lack of privacy at Lake George, her work grew and she produced an extraordinary number of paintings during the 1920s, “sometimes 50 a year, which is quite awesome,” says Hamilton.
“Lake George was definitely an important period in her art,” says Lisa Messinger, a curatorial assistant of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum, and the author of Georgia O’Keeffe (Thames &. Hudson). “It was when she started painting the first very large flowers. Before, when she painted flowers, you would see the entire flower placed in the middle of a sheet of paper. But by 1924 the flowers fill up the entire canvas and are cropped at the edges,” a style she shared with Stieglitz. “The two of them depicted similar subjects in Lake George,” says Messinger, “but their interpretations of them are very different. He intended for you to see a tree; she intended for you to see the shapes and the forms and the composition.
“The Jack-In–the-Pulpits were a Lake George subject. They were done in 1930 after she had already been to New Mexico in [the summer of] 1929.” O’Keeffe began the Jack-in-the-Pulpit paintings “representational,” according to Messinger, “but within the series she would move back and forth. The second one might be very abstract, the third one she’d revert back to a mid-point, and at the end it might go back to abstract.”
Even Stieglitz was astonished by the boldness of the sexual imagery in the flowers and questioned whether they should be shown at all. O’Keeffe per-sisted, all the while claiming to be oblivious to any suggestion of sexual content in the work. Jack Cowart, in the catalog of the National Gallery exhibition, writes that O’Keeffe’s “shapes were made inventively ambivalent. They became both abstract and figurative. Botanical details suggested human anatomy.” Adds Lisa Messinger: “It’s hard to look at the Music Series  and not see the sexual implications.” Ironically, she says, “Stieglitz in a way fostered that idea.” To O’Keeffe, the critics were only finding “their own autobiographies” in her work, so there were times when she returned to strictly figurative pieces—because, as she wrote to Sherwood Anderson from New York, “I didn’t like the interpretation of my other things.” Among works in this vein are My Shanty, Lake George Barns and Lake George Window.
Even though in her mind she had already moved to New Mexico after 1929, O’Keeffe’s life at Lake George with Stieglitz wasn’t over yet. And it might not ever have been if things had gone just a little bit differently. “She said it [Lake George] was very pretty but it wasn’t for her,” says Hamilton. “If she had designed and built a house with a studio and all the privacy she wanted, she probably would have spent a lot of time there. But I think she was just inevitably destined to explore the rest of the country. That was her adventure—the West, getting free.”
“After 1929, it was difficult for her to be up there with the family,” Lisa Messinger says. “There was just too much commotion going on and she always felt she needed a lot of solitude to work.” By then she also felt the need to get out from Stieglitz’s shadow, personally and professionally, so when she left “it was more [because of] personal things getting in the way.”
For eighteen years, Margaret Prosser of Lake George was the Stieglitz family’s housekeeper. She was also one of Alfred’s favorite subjects in the last years before he put his camera away. Her son Frank Prosser, now in his sixties, had the run of the place as a boy and remembers O’Keeffe vividly as somewhat irascible compared with the more compliant Stieglitz family members. “She was her own person,” he says, “the kind who wore slacks back when, dear God, it was forbidden.”
Prosser also remembers more than once being the object of O’Keeffe’s wrath. There was one long-ago instance in particular that O’Keeffe mentioned when she phoned him from New Mexico. “We talked for about half an hour. She was 91 or 92 years old and very alert. Her memory was sharp. She reminded me of the time from years ago when she had just finished a painting and I—who was a little kid at the time—proceeded to draw all through it when she wasn’t looking. She saved the painting, though.”
Prosser’s mother and O’Keeffe became close during the crisis that followed the artist’s failure to complete a commissoned mural at Radio City Music Hall in 1933. Troubled in her relationship with Stieglitz, and suffering from depression, chronic fatigue and headaches (“psychoneurosis” was the accepted clinical term at the time), she spent some recuperative time in Bermuda, then retreated for the winter to The Hill and Margaret Prosser’s care. It was to be her last sustained period at Lake George.
O’Keeffe’s extraordinary personal letters from that winter, many of them written to her longtime friend the black novelist Jean Toomer, record her slow path to recovery and her deepening attachment to Mrs. Prosser.
In November, she wrote, “Here I am in the country alone—just a maid who does things for me, a person I like very much. This lovely landscape is all wasted on me—autumn leaves and all.” By January 1934, she was able to tell Toomer: “I started to paint on Wednesday—it will undoubtedly take quite a bit of fumbling before I get started on a new path—I am busy putting myself together piece by piece—I need time—Margaret is very good natured.”
In February, after a difficult 12 days in New York, she returned to her Lake George refuge. “I feel like someone else here—everything is as usual except that Margaret is cross with me because I didn’t tell her I was going to stay [away] so long. It is 20-below. I can’t tell you how glad I am to be back.” The following year, O’Keeffe returned to Taos for the first time in three years. Her summers at Lake George were over.
After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe returned to the Adirondacks for the last time and buried his ashes under a tree near the lakeshore. Fot the next three years she was occupied with the settlement of his estate. At one point she asked Margaret Prosser to move to her home in Abiquiu and work for her, but Mrs. Prosser declined. “They just wouldn’t have gotten along down there,” her son says.
The forty acres on which The Hill once stood are now a completely developed neighborhood. Across Route 9N, Oaklawn is now The Quarters at the Four Seasons Inn, and Stieglitz’s ashes lie under the Tahoe Motel next door. The Four Seasons’ new owners, Victor and Linda Gush, have recently announced plans to spend $4 million on upgrading the resort to its previous character, with luxury suites decorated in what they refer to as an O’Keeffe-like style. How the painter would have responded to such changes might express as much about the evolution of the 20th century as does her long and celebrated life.
O’Keeffe’s work eventually came into its own, apart from Stieglitz, though she produced far fewer pieces after 1950. As evidenced by the renewed controversy that followed the opening of the O’Keeffe exhibition last winter in New York, her critics continue to squabble over the artistic merits of her paintings; many maintain that her legion of admirers sometimes fails to distinguish between her legend and her work. As Jack Cowart writes, “… the cumulative effect of sixty years of art criticism and exhibitions of O’Keeffe’s work has resulted in the idea of a person larger than life.” That idea, like the work that lies behind it, was to a great extent developed during the painter’s years at Lake George.
In a letter to her business advisor, Stieglitz’ nephew William Howard Schubart, in 1950, O’Keeffe wrote: “It seems odd to think of you at Lake George tonight—I can smell the outdoors—and hear it—and see the stars—So often before I went to bed at night I would walk out toward the barn and look at the sky in the open space.
“There was no light little house—there were no people—there was only the night—I will never go back there—unless—maybe to stand for just a moment where I put the little that was left of Alfred after he was cremated—but I think not even for that.
“I put him where he would hear the lake —
“That is finished.”