From 1915 until 1946, some 25,000 pieces of paper were exchanged between two major 20th-century artists. Painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote each other letters — sometimes two and three a day, some of them 40 pages long. The correspondence tracks their relationship from acquaintances to admirers to lovers to man and wife to exasperated — but still together — long-marrieds.
The first volume of those letters has just been published. My Faraway One, edited by Sarah Greenough, features 700-plus pages of the couple’s correspondence, sent between 1915 and 1933.
When Stieglitz and O’Keeffe met in 1916, he was 52 and famous — an internationally acclaimed photographer, with an avant-garde gallery in Manhattan. She, on the other hand, was 28 and unknown.
“Stieglitz was the most important person in the New York art world,” explains Greenough, head of the photography department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “And O’Keeffe was a schoolteacher” — teaching art in Texas.
The couple’s correspondence — O’Keeffe’s in sweeping squiggles and curlicues; Stieglitz in thick, decisive slanting black lines — cascaded over the years as their relationship deepened.
“I’m getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me,” O’Keeffe writes from Canyon, Texas, on Nov. 4, 1916. ” … Having told you so much of me — more than anyone else I know — could anything else follow but that I should want you — “
Stieglitz becomes her guide and mentor. He exhibits her work in his gallery, and, unannounced, O’Keeffe visits him in New York. As she’s about to return to Texas, Stieglitz writes to her on June, 1, 1917: “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 — ”
He’s beginning to yearn. Miserable in his first marriage, he starts to see her not as O’Keeffe the artist, but as O’Keeffe the woman. Years later, he will photograph her — with what she described as “a kind of heat.”
“Stieglitz was an immensely charismatic person, amazingly egotistical and narcissistic,” Greenough says, “but he had this ability to establish a deep communion with people.”
All I want is to preserve that wonderful something which so purely exists between us.
Alfred Stieglitz, 1918
O’Keeffe decides to move to New York, and before she arrives, Stieglitz writes to her on May 26, 1918:
“What do I want from you? — … Sometimes I feel I’m going stark mad — That I ought to say — Dearest — You are so much to me that you must not come near me — Coming may bring you darkness instead of light — And it’s in Everlasting light that you should live.”
Stieglitz worries that he won’t be able to provide for her. He has no head for business. Still, eagerly, he gets a small studio cleaned and aired for her, and writes: “All I want is to preserve that wonderful something which so purely exists between us.”
O’Keeffe comes to New York, and she and Stieglitz begin living together almost immediately. They marry in 1924. “They were entranced — passionately in love,” Greenough says. “And yet by the mid-’20s, difficulties start creeping into the relationship; you can see the cracks in the relationship.”
O’Keefe deeply wants to have a child, and Stieglitz does not, Greenough explains. The couple lives with Stieglitz’s family, which proves difficult for O’Keeffe. They spend every summer at Lake George in New York with the Stieglitz family, “and that family very much intruded on O’Keeffe’s time to paint,” Greenough says.
O’Keeffe becomes a famous artist — thanks in large part to Steiglitz’s promotion of her. She grows increasingly restless and, according to Greenough, starts making little trips. In the summer of 1929, she decides to go to New Mexico — a seminal decision that will forever change their lives.
“This really isn’t like anything you ever saw — and no one who tells you about it gives any idea of it,” she writes to Stieglitz from Taos, N.M., on May 2, 1929.
My Faraway One
Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: 1915-1933
“She is so happy,” Greenough says of O’Keeffe, who was staying with Mable Dodge Luhan, a woman who liked to surround herself with famous artists and writers.
“Mabel’s place beats anything you can imagine about it — it is simply astonishing,” O’Keeffe writes. “… The drive up here — seventy-five miles — was wonderful — It is bedtime and I am not a bit sleepy — not even tired — I lay in the sun a long time this afternoon — the air is cold and the wind — but the sun is hot — ”
O’Keeffe, now 42, is coming alive in New Mexico. She finds the subjects and colors that will place her work in every major museum. Her letters are full of adventures and sunshine. Back in New York, Stieglitz, now 65, falls apart. “I am broken,” he writes, desperate that he has lost her and will never get her back.
After two months in Taos, O’Keeffe explains her time away in a letter dated July 9, 1929:
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 something … I chose coming away because here at least I feel good — and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside — and very still — Maybe you will not love me for it — but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you — I hope this letter carries no hurt to you — It is the last thing I want to do in the world.
Today it rains —
“This letter to me seems to express what any modern woman feels,” Greenough says, “trying to reconcile the desires for work, their art, with a marriage.”
A very modern marriage, which lasts — with changes, variations, temptations, an infidelity and, of course, letters — until Stieglitz dies in 1946. Throughout, each groped for personal and professional fulfillment — and achieved so much. The relationship, from 1915 to 1933, is traced in Volume 1 of My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.
Excerpt: My Faraway One
Alfred Stieglitz, [New York City], [May 26, 1918]
What do I want from you? —
— It’s hardly six — morning — Sunday — cool — clear — the window wide open — I propped up in bed — feeling rather sick at heart — yet — still dreaming — having thought all night — sleeping impossible —
What do I want from you?
Your letter — I sent you a letter finished at the Manhattan Hotel — I went away & ordered something to eat — I re-read your letter — read it really for the first time as at 291 I was not alone — The food stood on the table & I seem not to have seen it for I was paying the bill when I realized I hadn’t touched a thing — was just staring into space. — The waiter laughed. — So did I. — I guess he must have thought me half-witted. — Sometimes I feel that I have gone completely dippy.
There it stood in large blazing letters — Wherever I looked: “What do I want from her” — And there was no answer. — Do I want anything from her that she hasn’t already given me over & over again — from the first moment I saw the drawings.
— All the drawings — all the letters. — Perhaps they set mad dreams agoing — Or were they merely the tangible evidence that the dream of a life was no longer a dream —
What do I want from you? — Nothing — nothing —
Perhaps I merely dare not want — No, that’s not it — I dare if I really did. —
I fear the youngsters in their idealism see possibilities & think you & I are of one spirit — & they love us — & they have dreams that they would like to see come true — through you — & through me.
Beautiful dreams — if the world were more beautiful they would come true — But the world is relentless & cruel — people are — they must be I suppose or they could not live —
Dearest Child — What do I want from you — You say I seem to need you — that you need me less than I need you — That’s true in a way — Still — it’s not entirely fair to me or to you —
Sometimes I feel I’m going stark mad — That I ought to say — Dearest — You are so much to me that you must not come near me — Coming may bring you darkness instead of light — And it’s in Everlasting Light you should live —
Your living is important — that’s what I want — my living is really not important. — I am young in spirit — As a spirit of some use — Otherwise truly hopelessly unfit —
— Of course I’d love to see you — talk to you — be with you — hear all you have to say — & tell you all I have to say — but if I am taking you away from your own natural center — away from Leah who can do more for you than I ever can — more materially — in the way of actual care — & I know that here you will feel the cruelty of the city — will live a restless existence — primarily because I’m not entirely free — having still responsibilities — & above all because I am a poor man as far as money is concerned. —
I need very little — but you should have sufficient — not because you think you need it — but because I feel you should have it — I know I’m no money-getter — It nearly drives me mad to see how helpless in a way I am — & —
Why Great Child — You don’t know me at all — You know me as the Dreamer — as the Spirit —
What do I want from you — Perhaps one big kiss to put me to sleep — & give me peace forever — I want to know you strong & well — I want to know you free —
I know you are a woman — First — & always — I know you need a home — a child — Those take a man to give you — I am not a man — That’s my curse. —
I could give you a child — It would be the purest that was ever conceived but it would be drowned to death — & you with it — & I too — because I do not know how to be part of the big game —
My love for you is so great — as wonderfully pure — It’s not the physical self seeking your physical self — I don’t know what it is —
Madness I guess — Madness like 291 —
Great Heavens — Everything seems to hurt this morning —
If you should decide to come because you feel you must — for no particular reason — expecting nothing — hoping for nothing — wanting nothing — Just coming — whatever happens then will happen naturally — What it will be I have no idea —
— Strand I fear has not made things very clear to you — How could he — He brought you quiet — that’s why I wished him to go — But I had hoped he’d be able to give you a picture of myself — conditions — Why — Because he felt — Elizabeth felt — I felt — you wanted to come East awhile — & I felt that you should know conditions — I could not write them — I can give you no picture now — My existence seems to be one great mess in spite of its spiritual purity — & I want to drag no one into the mess. —
Your getting sick made matters involved — It’s the sickness which in a way drew in the youngsters — I seemed so helpless to help you — so I spoke to them about you — I thought perhaps they could be of some assistance — & they have been — but they have brought glasses to you — colored — & you don’t see directly as you did before. — Not that which existed between you & me. — Really exists now —
Strand was really to rid you of the glasses — Of course it’s I responsible — I can write now all this — a couple of weeks ago it would have been absurd —
The sun has gone — it’s clouding up —
I wonder what you’ll decide to do — My last letter gave you an idea of the situation here —
Remember if you feel you want to come — are strong enough — I’ll be very happy — But if you come because you think I want something from you — the coming will be a false beginning. —
Beginning of what —
I’m so tired — I could cry —
Your letter — it’s beautiful — It’s full of passion — the Woman’s Soul — Crying for Completeness — Heart Rending —
Like your work — heartrendingly beautiful — Can anything bring you peace on earth unless it’s home & a child — And who is there fit to give you these? Honestly — Fairly to mother & child. — As you would need —
These are terrible days —
I wonder — I hate to send this letter —
Somehow I feel I ought to have you here — my arm around you — like Strand — Leah — listening — or not — & I telling you all this & more — Perhaps it would bring some light to both of us —
Perhaps I’m afraid — afraid that I am steering you for pain. —
— I am to go to the country — to my brother — I don’t feel a bit like it — I’d like to shut out all light & stay in bed — & not think —
There goes the clock —
Georgia O’Keeffe, [Taos, N.M.], [July 9, 1929] Tuesday —
My dear Alfred —
I did not get a letter off to you this morning because I overslept — it was a gray day and usually the sun wakes me up — It was after nine when I waked —
Last night your letters put me in such a daze — I didn’t seem to have thought enough to write — I was not here when the telegrams you speak of came. I wired you as soon as we returned — that is we got in late at night and the housekeeper gave me your telegrams in the morning. I wired you immediately — asked how you were that day — You did not answer — I sent you a night letter last night —
I really see nothing for me to do but return to you if you are going to worry this way. I don’t want to wear you out with anything like that — I am as conscientiously careful in everything I do as can be — I have not missed writing for more than a day unless maybe that time I asked Beck to write — and then it was because I was working all day every day — and I think that even that day I wrote you a little note after she wrote —
— If you are uneasy this way I will just not stay any longer — so you must tell me —
Mail in these places is not very certain — and on our trips I sent letters from any crazy little place we happened to be — Tony and Beck both laughed at me for writing so often — and we were not often still when I could write — I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you have been so distressed — It was entirely unnecessary — I assure you — If anything goes wrong — we wouldn’t be six days telling you about it — You have just worn yourself out — doing more than you could this spring — and being tired get into a state of mind that you wouldn’t if you were in better condition physically —
— As for other things you write of — of the past — things that have hurt me — and things that have hurt you — I have purposely 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 — In the Room you usually made me feel that you were just waiting for me to go — You feel that I am mistaken in many things — Going into it all does not lead anywhere —
I do not wish to blame you for anything — and I do not want you to be having any regrets — I think I understand it all better than you imagine — In a way I am very grateful to you for all of it — It makes me understand so many things about other people — and makes it very very difficult for them to touch any place in me that hurts — in either big or little things —
It is as tho it has given me the big balance wheel — It is as tho it has taken my heart — and at the same time left it for me in a usable form —
Maybe you will not like what I feel myself working into — maybe I just imagine it is different — I am not making an effort toward anything — in particular — It is nothing to grieve over — It feels right — and sane and alive to me —
Tony has done much for me — quiet — solid — a warm warm heart — his hurts and his loves — and his checking off my nervousness of many kinds — What I see between him and Mabel — his way of handling it —
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 —
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 something — Here it seems to move in every direction — There it didn’t seem to move at all — it seemed only to meet cold — cold —
Miss Young — the very keen Irish woman who is here looked at me across the breakfast table yesterday morning and remarked — “I never saw anything like you – You never seem to tire — You always live — How do you do it — Mrs. Strand goes up and down — She sometimes looks terrible — You get up at all hours — You go on long trips — You stay up late at night — You do all the things everybody else does and work besides — Tony looks all worn out keeping up with you at times — But you are the only one who seems able to stand it without there being any feeling of wear and tear — You seem to thrive on it always” —
I had to laugh —
— I go to sleep when I want to — Last night — everyone else playing cards — I went sound asleep on the floor — done up in a blanket at the feet of Tony’s nephew – he drumming Tony’s big drum in my ear — till they say he went to sleep too almost buried under the big drum — And Tony got up and rescued the drum and sent him to bed — I had gone numb with your letters — and all the people that came in — the Hapgoods and others — and the telegram I sent you — and wondering — should I just pack up this morning and leave — and just walk in on you — So I just got as close to the drum as I could — the Indian beat has a terrible persistent rhythm — it just carries you — so that even after I walked home across the alfalfa field — I went off again into a dead sleep — .
With this morning — Dasburg was in to see me — I showed him my work — He seemed to like it very much — thought that I had put down both the thing one sees in this country and the thing it does to you — He was very nice — seemed a bit sad as he left — Maybe I flatter myself but I often feel that a kind of live life quality that my things have makes other painters sad because it is something they haven’t — and can’t get — and I just have it — I have no choice — it seems to be right in my teeth —
Charles Collier is here too — he is stretching canvas for me — does it as well as I can — and you know that is saying a great deal — I taught him — You will meet him. He goes to Columbia next winter —
— Now listen Boy — I am all right. And what is between us is all right — 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 will just quiet down and be normal I will stay — If you can’t — 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 —
I assure you — there is nothing to worry about — The things I do may seem crazy to you — I thought of not telling you — only it seemed too foolish not to —
Do not worry about anything — We will work out something together — I feel very strong — Just try to give your little body a chance — You see I know that if I had not come away you would be in just as much of a stew over something I would be doing there – everything about me would have irritated you — Every summer you get ready to leave Lake George because of something I am and do that you can’t stand —
Strand is with you today — Beck has a telegram from him — I wonder if he will quiet you a little —
You see — I feel — if I hadn’t come away I would have irritated you — being away you worry — There seems no chance for me to come out right —
And I chose coming away because here at least I feel good — and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside — and very still — Maybe you will not love me for it — but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you — I hope this letter carries no hurt to you — It is the last thing I want to do in the world —
Today it rains —
Please leave your regrets — and all your sadness — and misery — If I had hugged all mine to my heart as you are doing I could not walk out the door and let the sun shine into me as it has — and I could not feel the stars touch the center of me as they do out there on the hills at night — or the silver of the sagebrush way off into the distance as well as nearby — seem to touch my lips and my cheek as it does —
— 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 cannot 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 —
Excerpted from My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933, edited and annotated by Sarah Greenough. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.
by Susan Stamberg. July 21, 2011