Most of us know Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork, but how well do we actually know the woman?

Not so well, it turns out, at least according to several recently uncovered letters to her longtime lover Alfred Stieglitz that were published as part of a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

As Lifetime's recent biopic on Georgia O'Keeffe reveals, O'Keeffe (shown at left in 1970) had a steamy, on-again-off-again relationship (and later marriage) with photographer and modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. Further insights into their relationship come from the letters, published in the catalog for the Whitney's current show, "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction." The missives provide a rare glimpse into the private lives of these art world superstars.

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Art and Other Affairs
Stieglitz was in his 50s and married at the time he met O'Keeffe, who was 29. A friend had sent Stieglitz some of O'Keeffe's artwork and he displayed her work without permission, so she went to New York to confront him. And that's when the sparks began.

O'Keeffe's missives to Stieglitz began tentatively ("Words and I are not good friends" she wrote in January 1916), but over time they became increasingly charged with sensuality and desire. "I am on my back -- waiting to be spread wide apart -- waiting for you," she wrote in 1922. (Keep in mind that Stieglitz didn't divorce his wife until 1924.)

Marriage on the Rocks
Stieglitz's relationship with O'Keeffe was professional as well as personal. He often photographed O'Keeffe, sometimes in front of her art to emphasize their sensual forms, sometimes in the nude, and several of those images were displayed at an exhibit at the Anderson Galleries in 1921, creating instant buzz for the young artist.

Before abstract art became trendy, O'Keeffe embraced it with broad strokes and bold colors, saying, "I found I could say things with colors that I couldn't say in any other way -- things that I had no words for."

Stieglitz and O'Keeffe married in 1924, but he cheated on her with other women and she often retreated to Santa Fe, N.M., where she could focus on her art and distance herself from Stieglitz. While there, their relationship continued until Stieglitz's death in 1946 -- the same year she became the first female artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Metropolitan Art.

Perhaps she loved the tumultuous ups and downs of her yo-yo relationship with Stieglitz. Or maybe she appreciated the impact he had on her artistic career. It doesn't sound that different from the Hollywood marriages of today. In more ways than one, O'Keeffe was a woman ahead of her time.


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