Born and raised in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O'Keeffe became one of the first American modernists, the first woman to gain recognition for that style, and a signature painter of Southwest landscape and structures.
She went to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905-06 and studied with John Vanderpoel. She then attended the Art Students League in New York under William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox, and F. Luis Mora. At this time in New York, she first became aware of modernist art. Although O'Keeffe was an award-winning artist at the League, she quit painting from 1908 to 1912 to work as a commercial artist.
In 1912, she attended classes at the University of Virginia and became aware of the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, well known art educator. She then went to Amarillo, Texas as the Supervisor of Public School Art and in 1914, returned to New York City and studied with Dow. She adopted his ideas that painting was a "filling of space in a beautiful way" (Baigell "Dictionary"), and from that time, did abstract drawings and paintings, many of them spare in color and form.
Her talents were "discovered" by photographer-gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who saw that she got established with the New York avant garde. However, she spent two more years, 1916 to 1918, in Texas, heading the art department at West Texas State Normal School in Canyon. The landscape there inspired many colorful canyon and plains landscapes. Returning to New York, she married Stieglitz and frequently accompanied him to Lake George in upstate New York. In 1924, she began to paint the botanicals, which became a signature part of her work. In the 1920s, she also did a series of New York City skyscraper scenes.
In 1929, she first went to the Southwest and visited each summer until her husband died in 1946, when she became a permanent resident. She settled in Abiquiu and produced the landscape and architectural paintings for which she is best known. Her style is austere as was her lifestyle; she dressed simply and followed a regular routine that nourished her creativity. In her later years, she was assisted by sculptor Juan Hamilton, who encouraged her in sculpture and managed her business affairs and administered her estate after she died.
In 1972, O'Keeffe's eyesight was compromised by macular degeneration, leading to the loss of central vision and leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting without assistance in 1972, but continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984. Juan Hamilton, a young potter, appeared at her ranch house in 1973 looking for work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full-time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business manager until her death. Hamilton taught O'Keeffe to work with clay, and working with assistance, she produced clay pots and a series of works in watercolor. In 1976, she wrote a book about her art and allowed a film to be made about her in 1977. On January 10, 1977, President Gerald R. Ford presented O'Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
O'Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered to the wind at the top of Pedernal Mountain, over her beloved "faraway".
Following O'Keeffe's death, her family contested her will because codicils made to it in the 1980s had left all of her estate to Hamilton. The case was ultimately settled out of court in July 1987. The case became famous as case law in estate planning. A substantial part of her estate's assets were transferred to the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, which dissolved in 2006, leaving these assets to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, established in Santa Fe in 1997 to perpetuate O'Keeffe's artistic legacy. These assets included a large body of her work, photographs, archival materials, and her Abiquiu house, library, and property. The Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiu was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and is now owned by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
In 1991, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired the American Playhouse production A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, starring Jane Alexander as Georgia O'Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Alfred Stieglitz. Lifetime Television produced a biopic of Georgia O'Keeffe premiering on September 19, 2009, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe, Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Simmons as Jean Toomer, Ed Begley, Jr. as Stieglitz's brother Lee, and Tyne Daly as Mabel Dodge Luhan.
In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent stamp honoring O'Keeffe.
In 2006, a fossilized species of archosaur was named after O'Keeffe. Blocks originally quarried in 1947 and 1948 near O'Keeffe's home at Ghost Ranch were opened fifty years after being collected. The fossil strongly resembles ornithomimid dinosaurs, but are actually more closely related to crocodiles. The specimen was named Effigia okeeffeae ("O'Keeffe's Ghost") in January 2006, "in honor of Georgia O'Keeffe for her numerous paintings of the badlands at Ghost Ranch and her interest in the Coelophysis Quarry when it was discovered".
A new exhibit of O'Keeffe's works at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which emphasizes her lesser-known abstract works, was on view from May 2010.
The title of the Rebecca Solnit's 2013 book comes from a letter written by O'Keeffe, in which she referred to "the faraway nearby" when she moved from New York to New Mexico.
Opening scene of episode 11 in season 3 of Breaking Bad has two characters discussing her painting.