Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters From 1915 until 1946, some 25,000 pieces of paper were exchanged between painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The correspondence tracks their relationship from acquaintances to admirers to lovers to man and wife to exasperated — but still together — long-marrieds.
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Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters

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Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters

Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From 1915 until 1946, some 25,000 pieces of paper were exchanged between two major 20th century artists. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote each other letters, two and three a day sometimes, 40-pages long sometimes.

The correspondence tracks their relationship from acquaintances to admirers, to lovers, to man and wife, to exasperated but still together long-marrieds. Volume one of those letters has just been published.

And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has been leafing through its 700-plus pages.

SUSAN STAMBERG: When they met in 1916, he was 52 and famous; an internationally acclaimed photographer, with an avant-garde gallery in Manhattan.

Ms. SARAH GREENOUGH (Editor, "My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz"): Stieglitz was the most important person in the New York art world.

STAMBERG: She, on the other hand, was 28 and unknown.

Ms. GREENOUGH: And O'Keefe was a schoolteacher.

STAMBERG: Teaching art in Texas.

Editor Sarah Greenough says the correspondence - O'Keeffe's in sweeping squiggles and curlicues, Stieglitz in thick, decisive slanting black lines -cascaded over the years as their relationship deepened.

Actress Naomi Jacobson reads excerpts from an early O'Keeffe letter.

Ms. NAOMI JACOBSON (Actor): (Reading) Canyon, Texas. November 4, 1916. Having told you so much of me, more than anyone else I know, could anything else follow but that I should want you?

STAMBERG: As a guide - a mentor, then - he exhibits her work in his gallery. Unannounced, O'Keeffe visits New York. As she's about to return to Texas, Alfred Stieglitz, actor Rick Foucheaux here, writes this...

Mr. RICK FOUCHEAUX (Actor): (Reading) New York City. June 1 1917. How I wanted to photograph you - the hands, the mouth and eyes, and the enveloped in black body, the touch of white and the throat.

STAMBERG: He's beginning to yearn. Miserable in his marriage, he starts to see her not as O'Keeffe the woman artist, but O'Keeffe the woman. He will photograph her with a kind of heat, she says years later. In the 19-teens, she's drawn to the heat.

Ms. GREENOUGH: Stieglitz was an immensely charismatic person, amazingly egotistical and narcissistic. But he had this ability to establish a deep communion with people.

STAMBERG: O'Keefe decides to move to New York. Before she arrives, he writes this.

Mr. FOUCHEAUX: (Reading) New York City. May 26, 1918. What do I want from you? Sometimes I feel I'm going stark mad. That I ought to say dearest, you are so much to me that you must not come near me. Coming may bring you darkness instead of light, and it's in everlasting light you should live.

STAMBERG: Stieglitz worries he won't be able to provide for her. He has no head for business. Still, eagerly, he gets a small studio cleaned and aired for her, and writes...

Mr. FOUCHEAUX: (Reading) All I want is to preserve that wonderful something which so purely exists between us.

STAMBERG: So she comes.

Ms. GREENOUGH: She comes to New York. They begin living together almost immediately. They married in 1924. They were entranced, passionately in love. And yet, by the mid '20s, difficulties start creeping into the relationship. You can see the cracks in relationship. They lived with Stieglitz's family. That caused difficulties for O'Keefe. Another difficulty was that O'Keefe very much wanted to have a child and Stieglitz did not.

And every summer, they spent it at Lake George, New York with Stieglitz's large family. And that family very much intruded on O'Keefe's time to paint.

STAMBERG: O'Keefe becomes a famous artist, thanks in large part to Stieglitz' promotion of her. She grows increasingly restless, according to Sarah Greenough, who edited the letters and is head of the Photography Department at the National Gallery of Art.

O'Keeffe starts making little trips.

Ms. GREENOUGH: And in the summer of 1929, decides to go to New Mexico.

STAMBERG: It's a seminal decision. It will change their lives forever.

Ms. JACOBSON: (Reading) Taos, New Mexico. May 2, 1929. This really isn't like anything you ever saw, and no one who tells about it gives any idea of it.

STAMBERG: She's so happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENOUGH: She is. She is so happy. This was written very soon after she gets out to New Mexico. She's staying with Mable Dodge Luhan, a woman who loved to sort of collect famous artists and writers around her.

Ms. JACOBSON: (Reading) Mabel's place beats anything you can imagine about it. It's simply astonishing. The drive up here, 75 miles, was wonderful. It is bedtime and I'm not a bit sleepy - not even tired. I lay in the sun a long time this afternoon. The air is cold and the wind. But the sun is hot.

STAMBERG: O'Keeffe now 42 is coming alive in New Mexico. She finds the subjects and colors that will place her work in every major museum. Her letters are full of adventures and sunshine.

Back in New York, Stieglitz now 65 falls apart. I am broken, he writes. Desperate he's lost her and will never get her back. After two months in Taos, O'Keefe explains her time away.

Ms. JACOBSON: (Reading) There is much life in me. When it was always checked in moving toward you, I realized it would die if it could not move toward something. And I chose coming away because here at least I feel good. And it makes me feel I'm growing very tall and straight inside and very still. Maybe you will not love me for it, but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you. I hope this letter carries no hurt to you. It's the last thing I want to do in the world. Today it rains.

STAMBERG: Oh, my.

Ms. GREENOUGH: This letter to me seems to express what any modern woman feels, trying to reconcile the desires for work, their art with a marriage.

STAMBERG: A very modern marriage, which lasts with changes, variations, temptations, an infidelity - and of course, letters, until Alfred Stieglitz dies, in 1946. Throughout, each groped for personal and professional fulfillment and achieved so much.

The relationship, from 1915 to 1933, is traced in volume one of "My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz," edited by Sarah Greenough.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

KELLY: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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