By Marcia Allen, Manhattan Public Library
I’ve always been fond of fictional books like Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s affair with and influence on Frank Lloyd Wright. Equally appealing to me was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which vividly conveyed the early marriage and the fractured relationship between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway. What is it about such books? Probably the intertwining of fact and fiction in telling the lives of famous artists.
And now I’ve discovered another jewel of a book. Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp is a masterful retelling of the love affair between O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the famed American photographer who promoted O’Keeffe’s art and eventually married her. I would highly recommend this new title to readers who are also drawn to similar tales for a variety of convincing reasons.
First, the author does an incredible job of developing O’Keeffe’s style. Those familiar with her stark New Mexico landscapes and striking flower paintings will note the development of her talent throughout the story. Her initial efforts promised talent, but her gradual creation of a totally new modern art form didn’t come until later. Stieglitz recognized her potential early on, and encouraged her work, showing and selling it in his gallery. The novel conveys this through vivid descriptions of settings that compelled the painter, as well as her frustration with pieces of art that she felt were unsuccessful. Vivid colors and open spaces are key throughout the book.
O’Keefe’s character is equally well rendered. Always a very independent woman, she fought for her own style. Extended stays in New Mexico gave her the opportunity to experiment with color and light, and she began collecting bones and rocks that inspired her. A gradual realization that that landscape was essential to her work led to her many lengthening trips to the area and also to the most famous landscape paintings of her career. Author Tripp’s descriptions of journeys to the Southwest and her lovely references to O’Keeffe’s favorite sites help us better see her creativity in progress.
More important to the book is O’Keefe’s relationship with Stieglitz. Following a brief correspondence with him, the painter traveled to New York to show him her work. The two formed an instant bond, and soon they became lovers, despite his marriage and the wide age gap between them. A very messy divorce allowed the two to marry later. As their relationship strengthened, Stieglitz arranged displays of her work and encouraged her to explore different mediums. He also took the famous photographs of O’Keefe, both clothed and nude, that are still considered classics. Because of Tripp’s careful research and her talent with the writing, we readers witness the intimacy and complexity in the relationship of two very talented and strong-willed individuals.
Tripp’s account of O’Keeffe’s mental breakdown is heartrending. This collapse took place in the 1930s when a series of events became unbearable. A contract to paint a mural in Radio City Music Hall fell through when the construction failed to meet deadlines. Stieglitz’s ongoing love affairs became blatant, and O’Keefe could no longer accept his assurances that she was the love of his life. She found, too, that his insistence on dominating the direction of her career stifled her independence. The passages in the book that convey this turmoil are fraught with helplessness and despair. O’Keeffe experienced a grief that became a physical one, because of the death of her long relationship with Stieglitz. There’s a sad healing realization toward the end that she had to be alone to fulfill her talent.
Like all books that are so well written and so revealing, this one has sparked my curiosity about the life of O’Keeffe. I plan to re-read Roxana Robinson’s memorable Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life in the near future. Author Tripp cites it as one of her research sources for this lovely fictional rendition. You just might wish to do the same.