Women's Activism NYC

Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe

By: Marina V | Date Added:

Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe was an American visual artist known for oil paintings, watercolors and monotypes. She is the younger sister of painter Georgia O'Keeffe. While the O’Keeffe family was never close, for many years the two oldest sisters, Georgia and Ida, held one another in high regard. Although they shared common interests, Ida O’Keeffe was sociable, playful, and without guile—a foil to her elder sister’s introversion. In the 1920s, Ida O’Keeffe spent several happy vacations at the Hill, the seasonal home of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz on Lake George in upstate New York. The fall of 1924 was a particularly joyful period at the Hill and this gallery contains examples of Stieglitz’s snapshots taken that season. As illustrated in the photo here, Ida O’Keeffe occasionally turned the camera toward the great photographer; he became her brother-in-law in December 1924. Suggestive notes and correspondence indicate that Stieglitz’s interest in his sister-in-law was not entirely platonic. Much to the amusement of her sister, Ida O’Keeffe refused to take his flirtations and sexual innuendos seriously. As children in Wisconsin and later Virginia, Ida and Georgia O’Keeffe received the same art education. Ida O’Keeffe then taught drawing and “domestic arts” for six years (1911–17) before studying and working as a nurse (1918–25). In 1925, during a private assignment as a nurse in Connecticut, she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz with the news that she had taken up oil painting and confided that she had never taken lessons in the medium. This admission underscores how middle-class women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were trained only in drawing and watercolors; instruction in oil painting was generally reserved for male students. Her progress over the next two years impressed Stieglitz, a leading purveyor of modern American art. Georgia O’Keeffe included her sister’s work in a show she curated at the Opportunity Gallery in late 1927. Not wanting to be perceived as riding her sister’s coattails, Ida O’Keeffe dropped her last name and exhibited as Ida Ten Eyck. In 1933, Ida O’Keeffe had her first major solo show at the Delphic Studios, a contemporary art gallery in New York City. The exhibition included paintings, prints, and drawings on a variety of subjects, including several paintings of lighthouses. Her younger sister Catherine O’Keeffe Klenert had also been featured in a solo exhibition at the same gallery two months earlier. Critics noticed the proliferation of O’Keeffes and declared them a “Family of Artists.” Georgia O’Keeffe, the eldest sister, responded to the heightened familial associations with anger. She demanded that her two younger sisters abandon art and cease to exhibit. Klenert obliged; Ida O’Keeffe did not. The once affectionate relationship between Georgia and Ida O’Keeffe was permanently altered into one of estrangement. In June 1931, immediately after receiving her bachelor’s degree, Ida O’Keeffe enrolled in a one-month course on advanced painting taught by Charles J. Martin, one of her former professors located in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Under Martin, O’Keeffe expanded her existing approach to compositional design and embraced his emphasis on modernist aesthetics rather than strict realism. Over the following year, O’Keeffe produced a series of seven works featuring the Highland Light, an iconic landmark south of Provincetown. The first, a realistic representation (current location unknown), was followed by six increasingly experimental canvases. She later explained, “With each progressive lighthouse, new colors and compositions were introduced, each one becoming more radiant in color and more complicated in composition.” Key to the development of the series were the theories of dynamic symmetry, a popular compositional device for artists at the time based on the mathematical principles of the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. While pursuing the limited opportunities available to unmarried women during the Great Depression, Ida O’Keeffe occasionally supplemented her income by writing. Among her publications is the third-grade reader Forest Indians (1934), for which she was both the author and illustrator. Her last known publication derived from her love of the monotype process and appeared in the journal Prints in 1937. Spontaneous and fresh in its execution, O’Keeffe described the monotype as standing “in the half-shadow between painting and print-making.” To create a monotype, an artist paints a design onto a hard support. Then, before the design dries, it is transferred onto moistened paper by pressing the two surfaces together. O’Keeffe could produce monotypes in her small living spaces following a day at work. She adapted the process by making her impressions with an electric iron. Beginning in 1934, Ida O’Keeffe assumed the first in a string of teaching and fellowship positions that took her to North Carolina, Alabama, New York, several locations in New England, New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Oregon, and, finally, to Whittier, California, where she settled and spent the last nineteen years of her life. While she continued to create and exhibit her work, these serial dislocations were disruptive and stressful, sapping both the energy and time necessary for the thoughtful development and maturation of her art. In the latter part of her career, O’Keeffe continued to explore several styles and genres simultaneously (realism and abstraction, still life and landscape). This lack of singular focus frustrated critics, who were accustomed to artists with a cohesive style. Her experiments with abstraction ranged from vibrant, non-objective paintings to the subdued nocturnal landscapes of 1938, the latter of which were particularly admired by critics. Following Ida O’Keeffe’s death on September 27, 1961, the bulk of her art and personal records remained with her youngest sister, Claudia O’Keeffe. Thirteen years later, Claudia O’Keeffe helped arrange a posthumous exhibition of Ida O’Keeffe’s work in Santa Fe, very near Georgia O’Keeffe’s longtime southwestern home. The event reignited the eldest sister’s opposition to any shared familial artistic talents. The history of art is littered with the unfulfilled ambitions of talented artists. Ida O’Keeffe’s circumstances—discovering oil painting late in life, launching a career during the Great Depression, residing outside of New York’s artistic sphere of influence, and lacking time to concentrate on her art— placed serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles in her path. These challenges were compounded by the era’s scarcity of opportunities for women. Georgia O’Keeffe also made it clear that she wished to be the only serious artist in the family. For her part, Ida O’Keeffe claimed that she would be famous, too, if only she had found “a Stieglitz”—that is, a powerful figure who supported, exhibited, and promoted her art. We are left to wonder at the direction Ida O’Keeffe’s art might have taken had her career unfolded differently. https://www.clarkart.edu/Mini-Sites/Ida-O-Keeffe/Image-Gallery

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