It’s a wonder Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz ever created the work that put them in the hierarchy of world-renowned artists. They somehow managed to find the time in between the some 5,000 letters they wrote to each other.
On June 1, 1917, Stieglitz wrote O’Keeffe: “How I wanted to photograph you — the hands — the mouth — &eyes — & the enveloped in black body — the touch of white — & the throat — but I didn’t want to break into your time — As I wanted to walk into the night — with you too. — I can tell you now — when it can’t be.”
I don’t know if they used the word smitten in 1917 but the attraction was intense and obvious.
On Valentine’s Day, the correspondence of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz are mirrors of universal love but also documentation of the feelings from one of the art world’s most famous couples.
In the 30 years of their relationship, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz wrote each other sometimes more than once a day. Some simply sizzle with their affection. “They exchanged between 1915 and 1946 about 25,000 pieces of paper,” said Sarah Greenough, the National Gallery of Art senior curator who edited the letters. O’Keeffe asked her to cull through the correspondence in 1981 and “My Faraway One,” is the 800 page result, published last year by the Yale University Press.
An example from May 16, 1922, O’Keffe writes:
“I seem to feel my body very intensely this morning — so much so that I wonder if there is anything else to me — It’s my body that wants you and it seems to be the only thought or desire that I have — It even seems to be my only memory of you — two bodies that have fused — have touched with completeness at both ends making a complete circuit — making them one — a circle that nothing can break — You have given me — the circle of the most painfully intense pleasure.....”
The couple married in 1924.
Stieglitz, the acclaimed photographer, spent most of his time in New York. Highly influential in the art world, he had given the first U.S. exhibitions to Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne. The couple met in 1915 when O’Keffe was an art teacher and student. Beginning in 1929, she spent two to three months a year in New Mexico, creating many of the landscapes that escalated her fame. After Stieglitz died in 1946, she moved to New Mexico. O’Keeffe died in 1986.
“They were incredibly in love and O’Keeffe was trying to construct a modern marriage with very few models to follow,” said Greenough. In fact O’Keeffe seemed to be tormented by their lifestyle.
On July 9, 1929 when she was in Taos, she wrote “You really need have no regrets about me — You see — I have not really had my way of life for many years — when I felt very close to you — that there was a home for me really within you — I could live — I will say — your way as much as it was possible for me to live another’s way.’
Writing was their expression. In 1918 O’Keeffe wrote “You will be here in a few minutes I guess but I have to get up and write you — it’s necessary — I must.”
O’Keeffe and Steiglitz were famous and led public lives, in the context of celebrity in pre-World War II America. Now the question is: will the e-mails and text messages of Jay-Z and Beyonce, or Brad and Angelina, merit the scholar’s examination 65 years from now.
The letters can also be viewed at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.