Images of Georgia O'Keeffe:

Austerely beautiful in a black suit and white blouse with a silver brooch made for her by Alexander Calder about 50 years ago, her steely hair pulled back in a severe bun, the legendary painter, now 95, made a rare appearance last night at the National Gallery of Art.

She came from her Abiqui, N.M., home for the opening of an exhibition of photographs by her late husband Alfred Stieglitz--the first retrospective of his work in almost 50 years.

Wandering about the gallery's new ground floor exhibition space, several hundred guests marveled at more than 170 photographs of New York City, abstract clouds, Stieglitz's artist friends and the unforgettable images of O'Keeffe herself--in pictures and in person.

Later, in the upstairs courtyard, a steady stream of acolytes and admirers reverently approached O'Keeffe's table. "Are we kneeling?" said one man in the procession to another. "No, we're going to confession," came the reply. Through it all, O'Keeffe remained as serene and still as one of her quietly luminous Southwestern landscapes as she greeted the guests.

"Your article and book pleased me very much," O'Keeffe said to Sarah Greenough, guest curator and author of the exhibition catalogue, squeezing Greenough's hand. She spoke in a soft, low voice to those who came to greet her and kept each greeting brief.

"I couldn't ask for a greater compliment," said Greenough, who said she has worked on the exhibition for five years with Juan Hamilton, O'Keeffe's friend and companion. "We tried to maintain a balance between the essential images identified with Stieglitz and more unknown images which we felt were important, that shouldn't remain unknown," Greenough said.

"There's no way to compete with this collection. It's absolutely superb," said Harry Lunn, owner of the Lunn Gallery, waiting his turn to meet O'Keeffe. Lunn, who opens his own show of Stieglitz photographs and memorabilia tonight, invited several out-of-town dealers and museum curators to his gallery for drinks after the reception.

Stieglitz "only took one photograph of me," said Gerald Sykes, a writer who had known O'Keeffe and Stieglitz for 60 years. "Then he double-exposed it with one of Georgia," Sykes said with a laugh. "Most psychologists would say he subconsciously wanted to do that. I think it was absentmindedness. That's my own guess.

"I was a student at Columbia when I met Stieglitz ," Sykes said. "I think he always wanted a son, so I was sort of adopted. He certainly taught me a great deal.

"If you look closely at the pictures of the skyscrapers in the exhibition, you'll see that they keep getting darker and darker," Sykes said. "He took the exact opposite approach to everyone else, he was opposed to what was happening, frightened by all the mechanization."

Sykes, who visited O'Keeffe on her Abiqui Ghost Ranch in 1980, admired Stieglitz's poetic portraits of O'Keeffe's hands, face and body. "He was celebrating the many impulses of femininity," said Sykes.

"The essential part of his story is that his father came to this country and made enough money to retire when Stieglitz was in his late teens, around 1880. He wanted Stieglitz to get his education in Germany, so after learning German, he went to the university in Berlin. And that's where he became fascinated by the camera.

"He took 500 photographs with that early camera, so by the end of five years, he knew what the camera could do. He became a master technician first. Then he used that technique on things that touched him."