March 25, 2019

Never-before-seen letters by Georgia O’Keeffe offer perspective into her life in the 1930s


The Library of Congress has acquired “a trove of letters” by the famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe, according to Elizabeth Blair at NPR. What these long-lost letters elucidate is a woman deeply tied to nature, during a time of financial and artistic uncertainty.

The letters were found in the closet of a recently purchased Santa Fe home, buried away in a box full of old Sunset Magazines. The home had been occupied by the widow of one of O’Keeffe’s friends, the filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz, the original recipient of the letters.

One of the letters details O’Keeffe’s excitement and hesitation in taking on a new commission—a large flower painting for the legendary cosmetics executive Elizabeth Arden. It reads:

Maybe I’ve been absurd about wanting to do a big flower painting, but I’ve wanted to do it and that is that. I’m going to try. Wish me luck.

If you wonder whether she found the courage to paint this one, she did. Arden’s commission, which O’Keeffe was paid $10,000 for, is the painting “Jimson Weed,” which now hangs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Blair spoke with the manuscript curator at the Library of Congress, Barbara Bair, who looked through the often personal letters by O’Keeffe. Bair says, “The Arden commission is seen as significant for where it would be shown—a salon for women. Women became O’Keeffe’s biggest fans and patrons. Arden, who had money, was endorsing her. And it was a big success.”

According to Bair, this was O’Keeffe’s first successful commercial commission. To have found these letters that offer intimate perspective into her thoughts at the time is really exciting.

What might make this more exciting for any fans of O’Keeffe’s is the Library of Congress’s recent efforts to make their collection more available for citizens to visit on their own. In an email, Bair states that the materials are “available to all adult researchers from any country in the world, who may come to the Library, obtain a library card (a quick and simple procedure) and have free access to the materials in our reading room.”



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.