When Georgia O'Keeffe met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, sparks flew. O'Keeffe—nearly 24 years his junior—was an unknown, struggling to define her art; Stieglitz owned the famed Gallery 291, a cauldron of avant-garde art. Soon they became storied lovers.
O'Keeffe, by Stieglitz. Courtesy Whitney Museum
The exchange began in January 1916, when O'Keeffe, living in South Carolina, learned that a friend had sent her drawings to Stieglitz. At first, she sought his advice. Soon she was verbally flirting with him, and in June 1918, she moved from Texas to New York to be with him, though he was married. That summer, Stieglitz began shooting the shockingly frank nude photographs of O'Keeffe that made her famous, but led critics to see eroticism in her works where, she said, she had not intended it.
The couple married in 1924—and the correspondence dropped off until 1929, when O'Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico, seeking new artistic horizons and alleviating marital tensions. When O'Keeffe died in 1986, she left the letters, under seal for 20 years, to Yale, where Sasha Nicholas, a curatorial assistant at the Whitney, combed them for excerpts. They are published for the first time in the catalogue and, in part, here. All misspellings and mistakes in punctuation are O'Keeffe's own.
From Columbia, S.C.
If you remember for a week – why you liked my charcoals that Anita Pollitzer showed you – and what they said to you – I would like to know if you want to tell me.
…I make them just to express myself – things I feel and want to say – havent words for – Georgia O'Keeffe
1 February 1916
Mr. Stieglitz – I like what you write me – Maybe I don't get exactly your meaning – but I like mine – like you liked your interpretation of my drawings….I am so glad they surprised you – that they gave you joy. I am glad I could give you once what 291 has given me many times.
Words and I are not good friends at all except with some people – when I am close to them and can feel as well as hear their response – …I wish I could tell you some of the things I've wanted to say as I felt them.
Sincerely, Georgia O'Keeffe
From Canyon, Texas
18 December 1916
I've been out watching the sunset again…
There isn't anyone in Texas to talk to tonight – My head would just about come to your knee if I were standing in front of you – and its great to be little – I like it.
I wonder if you will read this in the morning. Id like it to be a great day.
12 March 1917
…You know – Im just living – I just sort of plunge from one thing to another – so often – so very much afraid – And you feel like some thing that protects me – some thing I want to be very close to….
30 June 1917
…291 – You – believing in me – that making me believe in myself – has made it possible to be myself…
So again tonight – I don't know if its woman or little girl – I am mostly both – I want to put my arms round you – kiss you – let you kiss me – Its all very quiet – what I want is very quiet – it's great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you…
From New York
13 June 1918
You will be here in a few minutes I guess but I have to get up and write you – its necessary – I must – I've been lying here listening for you in the dark – my face feels so hot Aching for you way down to my finger ends – an actual physical ache –
As I came up the street into the sunset after supper – I wondered – can I stand it – the terrible fineness and beauty of the intensity of you – I do not know – may yet have to run away – it seems almost too much –
And lying here – wanting you with such an all ache – not just wanting – loving – feeling – all the parts of my body touched and kissed – conscious of you
A volcano is nothing to it
No words I know say the hotness – consumingness of it
Still I some way feel I can be quiet when you come can control myself
Feeling it grow though—I seem to feel that the moment will come when I cant control myself when I'll be blind and mad
The woman you are making seems to have gone far beyond me – Almost out of sight
From York Beach, Maine
…Dearest I love you.
I am on my back – waiting to be spread wide apart – waiting for you to die with the sense of you – the pleasure of you – the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me – all my body – all of me is waiting for you to touch the center of me with the center of you –
…When I feel how your touching my body –getting into my body – has given all of me to you – all of you to me as much as one human being can get into and feel another of another – I wonder if there is any difference in body – and spirit – and soul and mind – aren't they all one and the same thing --
…Its 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 –
…Im in such a state that I could write about this all day –
On Train from New York to Chicago
12 July 1928
…You see – as I realize you are getting older – I want to take you in my arms like a baby and make it easy for you – take care of you – but I feel you want to stand alone in the wind – the wind blowing your cape and your hair and your little body and I feel too that it is best that way – but I at least want to stand beside you near enough so that you can put out your hand to me if you want to and when you want to – and I want you to feel me there no matter how far away I am in miles –
…-- I kiss you and wish you quiet –
As I go toward this place that was my beginning – I know more and more how much deeper you have gone into me even than my beginning It is as tho I have had nothing else but the feeling of big open spaces –
-- My love to you dearest – I think we both understand – even tho we are both very difficult at times – I have wept a handkerchief wet over this –
From Taos, N.M.
10 July 1929
My dear Aflred –
I really see nothing for me to do but return to you if you are going to worry this way. …
As for other things you write of the past – things that have hurt me – and things that have hurt you – I have purposefully not written of it or remarked on it because of the distance between us – the long times between letters – and possibly – I do not want to hurt you – I have put out my hand to you so many times of late and more often than not felt you turn away from me …
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 anothers way – but when that seemed gone – there is much life in me – when it was always checked in moving toward you – I realized it would die if it could not move toward some thing – here it seems to move in every direction – there it didn't seem to move at all – it seemed only to meet cold – cold – …
Now listen Boy – I am alright. And what is between us is alright – and I don't want you to worry a bit about me – There was much more cause to worry about things when I was right beside you – If you just quiet down and be normal I will stay – if you cant – I want you to tell me – but if you can – I want to stay here longer – But not at too great a price from you – So you must tell me –
…A kiss Little Boy – I have not wanted to be anything but kind to you – but there is nothing to be kind to you if I can not be Me – And Me is something that reaches very far out into the world and all around – and kisses you – a very warm – cool – loving – kiss –
Nobody ever belonged to anyone more than I have belonged to you – and no one ever wanted less to hurt any one than I have wanted to hurt you –
-- So now sleep quietly – as tho I am by you and kiss you goodnight –
13 July 1929
I know that many things that seem very precious – very holy – are gone for me – but I feel too – that way down beyond that – where you can not touch it – where no one can touch it – there is a bond – that is my feeling for you – it is deeper than anything you can do to me – that is why I know I will be with you to the end – whether you wish it or not – whether I choose it or not – whether I am close to you or not …
You have always told me that the work came first – that has often been very difficult for the woman in me – …
From H&M Ranch, Alcade, N.M
26 July 1934
…You will say you didn't want me there because I didn't want some one else [Dorothy Norman] there – and all I have to say about that is that I do not for one moment accept the idea of your going about publicly making love to someone else – the place was not intended for that – I know that one can not control what one feels but one can control the public exhibition of it
It was you who wanted me and insisted on marriage and I am inclined to feel that I had a right to expect you to respect that relation – …
And always my feeling for you – the thing you are – the thing you have been to me in every way simply tears me to bits because I feel you have chosen a road without me – there is no way for us to meet on that road unless I can take a road of my own and work – and that is very difficult – I am always thinking I am on it and then I find I am not –
…I know what I am to you – as you put it – a deep central part of your life – and you must know you are – I will say the deep central part of my life – …
From Ghost Ranch, N.M.
18 August 1943
Good afternoon – five letters from you when Maria [Chabot] returned from Abiquiu – Very good to have but they make me sad – You sound lonely – and I believe you would feel lonely even if I were there – And if I were there I would not be what you remember – It makes me very sad – the child in you that I have always wanted to take care of –
…I wish you were here –
A kiss to you –
New York (left for him, as she departed for New Mexico )
5 June 1946
I have not written letters – I seem to have been so busy – I will be thinking of you all through the night and all through the days
You will be with me in my country
I will be with you here
Be good to yourself for me –
It means so much for me –
But I need not say –
You know without my saying –
Stieglitz died on July 13.