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Lovechild: Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, and the Birth of American Modernism

  • Camara Dia Holloway

During the 1910s, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz developed the ambition to create a modern American art and gathered a circle of artists and writers around him who were committed to his spiritual, nature-centered aesthetic. This group of American Moderns is now known as the second Stieglitz circle. A review of the cultural production of this group reveals that concepts of race played a central role in their construction of American modernism. This is especially evident in the discourse about artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who served as the symbol of the aspirations of this circle. Writing under the pseudonym, Search-Light, the writer Waldo Frank made the following observation about the work of O'Keeffe:

Arabesques of branch, form-fugues of fruit and leaf, aspirant trees, shouting skyscrapers of the city — she resolves them all into a sort of whiteness: she soothes the delirious colors of the world into a peaceful whiteness.

As indicated by the title of Frank's essay, “Georgia O'Keeffe: White Paint and Good Order,” the circle felt that O'Keeffe's arrangement of colors, the literal pigments that she used to make her paintings, achieved a harmonious pattern that represented the ideal world they imagined. The use of whiteness to describe their desired configuration of the world was even more apparent in an assessment of O'Keeffe's paintings by cultural critic Paul Rosenfeld:

A white radiance is in all the bright paint felt by this girl… O'Keeffe makes us feel dazzling white in her shrillest scarlet and her heavenliest blue … This art is, a little, a prayer that the indifferent and envious world, always prepared to regard self-respect as an insult to its own frustrate and crushed emotions, may be kept from defiling and wrecking the white glowing place.

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1. Corn, Wanda, “Spiritual America,” in The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 340.

2. The term American Moderns is one that this group used (see note 7).

3. Search-Light, [Frank, Waldo], “Georgia O'Keeffe: White Paint and Good Order,” in Time Exposures (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926), 3135.

4. Rosenfeld, Paul, “American Painting,” Dial 71 (12 1921): 660–70.

5. Peters, Sarah Whitaker, Becoming O'Keeffe: The Early Years (New York: Abbeville, 2001), 68.

6. Alfred Stieglitz, letter to Sherwood Anderson, September 18, 1923, in ibid, and 317 n. 12. Peters noted that this use of whiteness was not intended as a reference to skin color, a claim that my essay refutes.

7. Rosenfeld, Paul, Port of New York: Essay on Fourteen American Moderns (1924; rept. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 199.

8. Ibid., 207.

9. Ibid., 208.

10. Gerstle, Gary, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Guterl, Matthew Pratt, The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

11. Barkan, Elazar and Bush, Ronald, eds., Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995); Bernardi, Daniel, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U. S. Cinema (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996); Cassidy, Donna M., Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910–1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); Doyle, Laura, Bordering On The Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Gubar, Susan, Racechanges: White Skin, Blackface in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Hathaway, Heather, Jařab, Josef, and Melnick, Jeffrey, eds., Race and the Modern Artist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Hutchinson, George, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1995); Lemke, Sieglinde, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992); North, Michael, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Powell, Richard J., The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (Washington, D.C.: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989); Radano, Ronald Michael and Bohlman, Philip Vilas, eds., Music and the Racial Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); and Rogin, Michael, Black Face, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

12. Brennan, Marcia, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001); Chave, Anna C., “O'Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze,” Art in America 78 (01 1990), 114–24, 177, 179; Lynes, Barbara Buhler, O'Keeffe, Stieglitz, and the Critics, 1916–1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and Wagner, Anne M., Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O'Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

13. Shannon, Helen M., “‘A New Form of Expression and a New Expression of Form’: African Art, Photographic Vision, and American Modernism,” in From ‘African Savages’ to ‘Ancestral Legacy’: Race and Cultural Nationalism in the American Modernist Reception of African Art (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1999), 58118.

14. Rubin, William Stanley, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 2 vols. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984).

15. Chave, Anna C., “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of Cubism,” Art Bulletin 76 (12 1994): 596611; and Leighten, Patricia, “The White Peril and L'Art Nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism,” Art Bulletin 72 (12 1990): 609–30.

16. Greenough, Sarah, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set — The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2002).

17. Greenough, Sarah, ed., Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2000), 565.

18. This print was sold by the Vivian Horan Gallery in 2003. Doris Bry, who assisted O'Keeffe with the arrangements regarding Stieglitz's estate, has identified this photograph as a unique print from the 1919 negative.

19. According to the records of the Horan Gallery, the photograph came from O'Keeffe's personal collection.

20. Shannon, Helen M., “African Art, 1914: The Root of Modern Art,” in Greenough, , Modern Art and America, 169–79, 502–3.

21. de Zayas, Marius, How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York, ed. Naumann, Francis M. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), 31.

22. Shannon, , “African Art, 1914,” 178–79.

23. de Zayas, Marius, “Modern Art in Connection with Negro Art,” Camerawork 48 (10 1916): 7; and African Negro Art: Its Influence on Modern Art (New York: Modern Gallery, 1916).

24. De Zayas, , African Negro Art, 41.

25. Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo (1913), reprinted in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. Strachey, James, Freud, Anna, and Rothgeb, Carrie Lee (London: Hogarth, 1973), 13:1162.

26. Stebbins, Theodore Jr, The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist (Boston: Bulfinch, 2002); and Webb, Virginia-Lee, “Art as Information: The African Portfolios of Charles Sheeler and Walker Evans,” African Arts 24 (1991): 5363, 103–4.

27. De Zayas, , How, When and Why, 3537.

28. Richard, Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997), 103–10.

29. Eisler, Colin, “‘Going Straight’: Camerawork as Men's Work in the Gendering of American Photography,” Genders 30 (1999),; and Davidov, Judith Fryer, Women's Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998).

30. Malcolm, Janet, “Photography: Artists and Lovers,” New Yorker 55 (03 12, 1979): 118–20.

31. Dijkstra, Bram, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Dijkstra, Bram, Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood (New York: Knopf, 1996); and Ann Doane, Mary, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1991).

32. Dunn, Stephane, “‘Real Sex’ and the African Female Primitive Sign in Women in Love,” in The ‘Primitive Speaks’: The Politics of Race and Gender in Literary Modernism and the Modernist Imagination (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2000), 90137.

33. Parsons, Melinda Boyd, “Pamela Colman Smith and Alfred Stieglitz: Modernism at 291,” History of Photography 20 (1996): 285, 291 n. 1.

34. Pamela Colman Smith published a collection of stories drawn from African-derived Jamaican folk culture and written in the English dialect that Afro-Jamaicans spoke. She was known to give storytelling performances of these tales, voicing that form of speech while wearing the costume of an Afro-Jamaican woman, which lends further weight to Melinda Boyd Parsons supposition (see Parsons, Melinda Boyd, To All Believers: The Art Of Pamela Colman Smith [Newark: Delaware Art Museum, 1975]; and Smith, Pamela Colman, Annancy Stories [New York: R. H. Russell, 1899]).

35. Parsons, , “Pamela Colman Smith,” 285–86.

36. Ibid., 292.

37. Naef, Weston J., Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), 46.

38. Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny,” in Strachey, , Standard Edition, 17:219.

39. See note 23.

40. Freud, Sigmund, “Essay on The Question of Lay Analysis,” in Strachey, , Standard Edition, 20:212.

41. Lisle, Laurie, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Penguin, 1980), 9.

42. Rosenfeld, Paul, “Stieglitz,” Dial 70 (04 1921): 406.

43. For an elaboration of how the camera was used to symbolize Stieglitz in works produced by the Stieglitz circle, such as Picabia, Francis's Here, This is Stieglitz/Faith and Love (1915), see Brennan, , “Faith, Love and the Broken Camera,” in Painting Gender, 4471.

44. Hartley, Marsden, Adventures in the Arts (1921), quoted in Lynes, , O'Keeffe, 170.

45. Dyer, , White, 2729.

46. Besides the already cited Peters (Becoming O'Keeffe) and Lisle (Portrait of an Artist); see Greenough, Sarah, “Alfred Stieglitz, Facilitator, Financier, and Father, Presents Seven Americans,” in Greenough, , Modern Art and America, 277340; Drohojowska-Phillip, Hunter, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004); Lowe, Sue Davidson, Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983); and Whelan, Richard, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), 369–78.

47. O'Keeffe's work was included in a group exhibition in 1916, which was followed by solo exhibition in 1917.

48. Lynes, , O'Keeffe, 32.

49. Greenough, Sarah, “Alfred Stieglitz, Rebellious Midwife to a Thousand Ideas,” in Greenough, , Modern Art and America, 35.

50. An exhibition history with a checklist of the 1921 retrospective appeared in Greenough, , Key Set, 967.

51. Freud, Sigmund, “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” and “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” in Strachey, , Standard Edition, vol. 7.

52. Alfred Stieglitz, letter to Stanton MacDonald Wright, October 19,1919, cited in Norman, Dorothy, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (New York: Random House, 1973), 136–38.

53. O'Keeffe, Georgia, Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978), 5.

54. Brilliant, Richard, Portraiture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 11.

55. Ibid., 8.

56. Hambourg, Maria Morris, The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993), 175–76.

57. Eisinger, Joel, “Straight Photography,” in Trace and Transformation: American Criticism of Photography in the Modernist Period (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 5279.

58. Stieglitz, , letter to Wright, in Norman, , Alfred Stieglitz, 137.

59. Nead, Lynda, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1992).

60. Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972); Clark, Kenneth, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art (London: Murray, 1956); and Pointon, Marcia R., Naked Authority: the Body in Western Painting, 1830–1908 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

61. Pollock, Griselda, Avant-Garde Gambits, 1888–1893: Gender and the Color of Art History, Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures, 24 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993).

62. Gilman, Sander, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward and Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” in ‘Race,’ Culture and Difference, ed. Donald, James and Rattansi, Ali (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage in association with the Open University, 1992), 171–97.

63. Ibid., 193–94.

64. Regarding the racialization of light and shadow, see Dyer, , “The Light of the World,” in White, 82144.

65. Pollock, Griselda, “A Tale of Three Women: Seeing in the Dark, Seeing Double, at Least, with Manet,” in Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's Histories (London: Routledge, 1999), 259–60.

66. Ibid., 286–87.

67. The model has been identified as a woman named Laure who posed for several painters of Manet's circle (ibid., 255, 277, 286).

68. Smalls, James, “Slavery Is a Woman: ‘Race,’ Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist's Portrait d'une Négresse (1800),” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (Spring 2004),

69. Clark, T. J., The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (New York: Knopf, 1984).

70. Pollock, , “Tale of Three Women,” 303.

71. Nelson, Charmaine, “White Marble, Black Bodies and the Fear of the Invisible Negro: Signifying Blackness in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Neo-Classical Sculpture,” RACAR [Revue d'Art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review] 27 (2000): 87101.

72. Ibid., 90.

73. Wright, Alastair, “Miscegenations: Nu Bleu and the Collapsing of Difference,” in Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 163–92.

74. Needham, Gerald, “Manet, Olympia, and Pornographic Photography,” in Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970, ed. Nochlin, Linda and Ness, Thomas B. (New York: Newsweek, 1972), 8189.

75. Shannon, , “African Art, 1914,” 173.

76. The Demoiselles was first exhibited in 1916, but had already been written about by several people, including Gelett Burgess, an American journalist in 1910; André Salmon in 1912; and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1920 (see Green, Christopher, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 8, 12 n. 11, 130, 146 n. 4 and 5).

77. Brock, Charles, “Pablo Picasso, 1911: An Intellectual Cocktail,” in Greenough, , Modern Art and America, 117–26, 497–99.

78. Greenough, , “Alfred Stieglitz, Rebellious Midwife,” in Greenough, , Modern Art and America, 36.

79. Banta, Martha, Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

80. Trimberger, Ellen Kay, “The New Woman and the New Sexuality: Conflict and Contradiction in the Writings and Lives of Mabel Dodge and Neith Boyce,” in 1915, The Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art and the New Theatre in America, ed. Heller, Adele and Rudnick, Lois (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 98.

81. Banta, , Imaging American Women, 91.

82. Felski, Rita, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 14.

83. Rosenfeld, , Port of New York, 260.

84. Ibid., 275–76.

85. Broude, Norma and Garrard, Mary D., eds., Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History (New York: Harper Collins, 1992); Broude, Norma and Garrard, Mary D., eds., Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Garb, Tamar, Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siecle France (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998); Nochlin, Linda, Representing Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999); Nochlin, Linda, Women, Art and Power: And Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); and Pollock, Griselda, Vision and Difference (London: Routledge, 1988).

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87. I am using the original titles identified in the catalogue raisonné in Greenough, , The Key Set, which are distinct from titles used by institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum that appear in the captions.

88. Dyer, , White, 2530.

89. Ibid., 27–28.

90. Rosenfeld, , “Stieglitz,” 399.

91. Ibid., 399–400.

92. Dyer, , White, 4445.

93. Rosenfeld, , “Stieglitz,” 399.

94. Tyrell, Henry, “New York Art Exhibition and Gallery News: Animadeversions on the Tendencies of the Times in Art-School for Sculpture on New Lines,” Christian Science Monitor, 06 2, 1916, 10; reprinted in Lynes, , O'Keeffe, 165–66.

95. Rosenfeld, , Port of New York, 210.

96. Armstrong, Nancy, “Modernism's Iconophobia and What It Did to Gender,” Modernism/modernity 5 (1998): 70.

97. Parsons, , “Pamela Colman Smith,” 285.

98. Ann Douglas, , Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995).

99. Johnson, James Weldon, Black Manhattan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930).

100. Baker, Lee D., From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction Of Race, 1896–1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); and Barkan, Elazar, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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