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2 Paintings in Collection

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe


(1889 - 1961) United States

in Public Collections

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Sante Fe, NM; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; Albuquerque Museum, NM.

Selected Exhibitions

Naples Collects, Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, Fl, 2023

Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V included

Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow, Dallas Museum of Art, Curator Sue Canterbury, 2018. Traveled to The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2019

Variations on a Lighthouse Theme IV and Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V included

Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, Miami Beach, FL, 2017. Traveled to Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2017

Variations on a Lighthouse Theme IV and Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V included

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, Boise Art Museum, Idaho, 2002

Variations on a Lighthouse Theme IV and Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V included

Selected Publications

Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow, Dallas Museum of Art, Edited by Sue Canterbury, Yale University Press, 2018

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition: The Jeri L. Waxenberg Collection, by Kristin Poole, JLW Collection, 2002

Other resources

The Rivalry Between Georgia O’Keeffe and her Sister Ida, By Roxana Robinson, The New Yorker, September 4, 2019:

Born 1889 Sun Prairie, WI
Died 1961 Whittier, CA

Ida O’Keeffe was a committed and talented artist whose career was affected by her need to earn a living and overshadowed by her relationship to her more established older sister, Georgia. O’Keeffe’s body of work spans from representational landscapes to monotypes to semi-abstract modernist oils. Like many artists who came of age at the beginning of the 20th century, O’Keeffe absorbed what was happening around her and her paintings reflect various approaches to modernism including geometric symmetry. In addition to painting, she explored several print mediums but specialized in monotypes which she developed with an electric iron in her often cramped living spaces. Her peripatetic life as a nurse and a teacher necessitated moving about the country with her art often taking second place to practical needs.

Born to a large family (she was the 3rd of 7 siblings), in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Ida O'Keeffe was named after her mother and was recognized as artistically gifted by her family. She was raised in an encouraging atmosphere as two of her sisters and both her grandmothers were artists. She graduated from Williamsburg Female Institute (VA) high school in 1910 when she was 21, her education having been interrupted by family moves and challenging financial circumstances. As a young woman O’Keeffe also took drawing and woodworking classes at University of Virginia.

Between 1911 and 1919 O’Keeffe accepted various teaching appointments, mostly at elementary schools in Virginia. At many posts she taught drawing and continued to pursue her own drawings when time allowed. During World War I, she was motivated to study nursing, enrolling in mount Sinai School of Nursing in 1918. In 1921 she received her degree and worked as a gynecological nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

In the summer of 1922 Ida joined her sister Georgia and Georgia’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, at their home in Lake George, New York. Stieglitz and Georgia found Ida a welcome addition to their household and encouraged her visits. Robust written correspondence between Stieglitz and Ida indicates that Stieglitz was attracted to Ida and flirted with her as he did with other women who frequented their home. Reportedly Stieglitz was fascinated with his wife's younger sibling because she resembled Georgia but was very different from her. Ida was better humored and a great outdoors woman and could shoot a squirrel as well as she arranged wildflowers. Apparently, Georgia was not threatened by her husband's flirtations with her sister and more often than not when the three spent time together it was harmoniously. That harmony was disrupted for some years though when writer Paul Rosenfeld came for a visit in 1924 and diverted Ida's attention infuriating Stieglitz. The attraction was serious and eventually prompted a marriage proposal, but Stieglitz discouraged the pairing and Ida eventually rejected Rosenfeld having discovered his affairs with other women.

In 1925 O’Keeffe began to work with oils, teaching herself the subtleties of the medium. In 1927, Georgia O’Keeffe curated an exhibition of work by 18 women at the Opportunity Gallery in Manhattan and included Ida who exhibited under the name Ida Ten Eyck to avoid any appearance of nepotism. Two of her works were still-lifes of flowers and fruit. Her work received a number of favorable reviews. Georgia Engelhard, a painter who is also represented in the Wolfson Collection, and Helen Torr were also included in the exhibition.

By 1929 Ida is discouraged about her broken relationship and frustrated by both nursing and teaching. Determined to pursue her art, she enrolled at Columbia University Teacher's College, receiving her MFA in 1932. At Columbia, O’Keeffe studied under Charles Martin, a student of Arthur Wesley Dow’s, learning the chemistry of painting and benefiting from Martin’s emphasis on artistic interpretation of a subject rather than strict representation. Martin also taught the theory of dynamic symmetry, in which geometric lines are superimposed on realistic shapes to produce architectonic images. The approach alludes to classical prototypes of harmony and resonated with O’Keeffe whose work begins to shift towards abstraction under Martin’s tutelage.

In the summer of 1931 Ida followed Martin to Cape Cod where he was teaching summer classes. It was in Cape Cod that O’Keeffe saw the Highland Light in North Truro that would inspire a series of paintings including the two in the Wolfson Collection: Variations on a Lighthouse Theme IV and Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V. These paintings are part of a series of seven lighthouse paintings that O’Keeffe created as part of her master’s studies at Columbia. The semi-abstract compositions are made up of geometric shapes, lines and curves. Restricting herself to a limited palette, O’Keeffe explores various iterations of the same view. The best of the series are powerful, austere images that use contrasting arcs of light and shadow to create powerful, brooding compositions. Sue Canterbury, curator of the 2018 O’Keeffe exhibition organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, did extensive research on the lighthouse series and located this quote from a 1939 scholarship application that articulates O’Keeffe’s approach: “I develop the other pictures in an abstract way, experimenting with the power of color. With each progressive lighthouse, new colors and compositions were introduced, each one becoming more radiant in color and more complicated in composition.”

Martin’s teaching combined with O’Keeffe’s exposure to other artists working in New York at the time propelled a shift in her artwork. She moves from traditional illusionistic representation to a more abstract, modernist approach where form is simplified, reduced to geometric shapes and movement is conveyed through a pattern of overlapping arcs and circles. In Variations on a Lighthouse Theme IV the rays from the lighthouse move through the center of the painting forming the roof of the buildings on both sides of the lighthouse. The path of light beams are portrayed through a series of sequential curved triangles that make up the sky. In Variations on a Lighthouse Theme V the lighthouse itself takes on a triangular form with the black building in front made up of arched rectangles. The sky, land and sea are conflated and the beam of light that moves through the sky ends by articulating the line of the sail.

It is quite likely that O’Keeffe structured her lighthouse series utilizing ideas of dynamic symmetry. Sue Canterbury and Francesca Soriano found evidence on the verso of one of the paintings in the series that indicates O’Keeffe was familiar with a mathematical system that determined how to use proportional geometric shapes to create a balanced composition. Canterbury’s research also reveals that the titles, dates and order of the lighthouse paintings are ambiguous as a number of markings on the canvases conflict with the official title and order of the works. The entire series was exhibited at the Delphic studios in 1933 as part of O’Keeffe’s first solo exhibition and went on to the Springfield Art Museum (MO) where some additional artworks were added. O’Keeffe, clearly proud of the lighthouse series, included them often in other exhibitions. That same year the paintings were shown at the Madison Art Association (WI) in an exhibition with her sister, Catherine.

While O’Keeffe was exhibiting more frequently at this time most reviews did not address her art but focused instead on her relationship to Georgia. Their sister Catherine was also making and sharing her artwork and many reviewers found delight in the clan of O’Keeffes who were producing art. Threatened that the focus on her was being diverted, Georgia O’Keeffe insisted both her sisters stop exhibiting their work in New York. Ida did not take her older sister’s advice and during the remainder of her lifetime the two had only sporadic interaction.

Regardless of Georgia’s attentions, Ida’s career as an artist was ultimately challenged by her need to earn a living. Between 1934 and 1941 she crisscrossed the nation accepting brief teaching appointments in North Carolina, Alabama, New York, Missouri, Texas and New Jersey. She was interested in cultural anthropology and explored the folklore of the various places where she taught, encouraging her students to do projects on place history, but there was little time to make art. She was able to execute some monotypes while traveling because it did not require much space or an extended time commitment. Between 1934 and 1937 O’Keeffe participated in a number of group exhibitions, primarily exhibiting her monotypes. In 1937 she had a solo exhibition at Delphic Studios in New York. The exhibition, which received positive reviews, consisted entirely of monotypes.

From 1941-42 O’Keeffe taught art and served as Chair of the Art Department of Pembroke State College for Indians (today University of North Carolina at Pembroke). But in 1942 she left what appeared to be a solid position at Pembroke to work at Douglas Aircraft in California and assist with the war effort. She moved to Whittier California to commute to Douglas and it is there that she spent the remainder of her life. As Georgia O'Keeffe's fame grew, Ida's artistic career shrank. Critics were confused by the inconsistencies in her approach which still varied from naturalistic still-lifes and landscapes to the bold abstracted geometrics of her lighthouse series. By 1950 Ida O’Keeffe was dependent on Georgia and two other sisters, Anita and Claudia, for financial support. Focused on her life and community in Whittier, she exhibited frequently with the Whittier Art Association for the next 17 years, serving on the board and supporting their operations. 

In 1960 the Whittier Art Association organized a solo exhibition of 16 of Ida O’Keeffe’s paintings at the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier. That exhibition was one year before her death in 1961 of a stroke at age 7l. Posthumously, she was the subject of an exhibition in 1974 in Santa Fe organized by her sister Claudia. In 2018 scholar and curator Sue Canterbury mounted a touring exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work. Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art the exhibition and catalog are the most complete record of Ida O’Keeffe’s art and life to date, securing a legacy for an artist who faced an uphill battle for recognition all her life.

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