Sexual symbolism, femininity, and feminism in the painting of Georgia O'Keeffe
Spalding, Laura H.
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This study attempts to define the terms "sexual symbolism," "femininity," and "feminism," and endeavors to determine their meaning and significance in the painting of Georgia- 0'Keeffe. Although femininity and feminism can and often do go hand in hand, there are some very specific differences which are explored, and the sexual imagery evident in the work of O'Keeffe is identified. O'Keeffe was a very feminine woman who was very advanced in her ideas and imbued with an independent nature which enabled her to embrace feminist ideas without sacrificing her feminine qualities. Traditionally, in patriarchal societies such as that which exists in the United States (although this is now changing), a woman must be subservient to a man in order to be considered feminine. However, O'Keeffe believed that she was equal to a man. Married to a very domineering and at times almost overwhelming man, the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was a struggling professional artist surrounded by male peers. Nevertheless, she managed to keep the necessary balance between the independence needed in order to succeed in her art and in her life—while making the concessions and gestures necessary to maintain a satisfying relationship with her husband. Stieglitz recognized the special qualities of O'Keeffe's work very early and was aware of the inherent sexual symbolism of her painting, but O'Keeffe has never admitted that it exists. Yet, many critics and art historians have continued to agree that it does occur in her work, especially in the flower paintings, and that it is a vital component. The comments of the critics and art historians with regard to the sexual symbolism and the feminine and feminist qualities of her painting have been evaluated in terms of the works themselves and my own observations.