By Mark St. John Erickson
4:15 PM EDT, May 6, 2014
Georgia O'Keeffe was already a world-renowned Modern artist when she returned to her family's former home in Williamsburg to receive an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary on May 7, 1938.
But to many residents of this small Southern town, the 50-year-old painter was still the eccentric daughter of Francis and Ida O'Keeffe -- the Wisconsin couple who had moved their children there back in 1902.
Plain in attire and intent in mind, the young art student had not yet turned 16 the first time she joined her kin in their new home. But her distinctive appearance and behavior quickly singled her out as an unconventional spirit.
And that reputation only grew as O'Keeffe came home from boarding school in Southwestern Virginia, then art studies in Chicago and New York many times over the next eight or nine years.
How much that memory colored the town's perception of O'Keeffe's return in 1938 can only be imagined. Some old-timers -- now deceased -- described the artist as reluctant and aloof, while a childhood neighbor spoke of an almost otherworldly detachment.
But nothing could seem further from the flickering images of a home movie that captured O'Keeffe walking across the campus in her cap and gown.
The buoyant artist is clearly smiling -- as are the William & Mary officials poised to bestow her an honorary degree. And even the much more formal still picture that survives belies the stories handed down for generations.
Born in rural Wisconsin in 1887, O'Keeffe was the second of seven children in a family of irrepressible individualists.
Her father, a successful dairy farmer, sold off virtually all he owned in order to transplant his clan to what he believed was the healthier climate in Williamsburg. But his Midwestern manners and progressive ways frustrated his efforts from the beginning.
Francis tried hard to establish himself, pouring much of his fortune into a creamery that struggled to stay afloat.
He and his sons also branched out into the cement-block business, too, advertising their product by building and then moving into a Scotland Street house that attracted near-universal scorn because of its unconventional appearance.
The family earned some good will when it contributed to the campaign for a new "female institute," which was constructed on land that Francis owned near the present-day site of Mathew Whaley School.
But continuing financial hardships -- compounded by Ida's poor health -- helped tag the hard-working Irishman with a reputation for being "lazy."
His daughter's eccentricity -- and her long periods of schooling away from home -- only intensified the suspicions about her family.
Yet even a cursory examination of the record contradicts the oft-repeated myth that the artist left town when she was only 9 years old.
"She stayed here longer than most people remember," said Muscarelle Museum of Art curator Ann Madonia in 2001, describing Georgia's extended return to keep house for her father in 1911.
"And her links to Williamsburg and the college are much stronger than people think."
Indeed, when William & Mary president John Stewart Bryan offered the artist her first honorary degree nearly three decades later, he worried about her willingness to visit her former hometown.
To his relief, however, the reputedly aloof talent -- who was by then known around the world -- not only embraced his proposal but added to the importance of the occasion with a suggestion of her own.
In a series of remarkably personable letters found in the W&M archives, O'Keeffe suggested -- and Bryan accepted -- the idea of staging an exhibit of her work instead of delivering a traditional doctoral address.
"...I am glad that you will have the paintings to speak for me," the artist wrote, after the college agreed to her offer.
Later correspondence between Leslie Cheek, the innovative museum director who was then head of W&M's pioneering art department, and Alfred Stieglitz, the legendary photographer who was O'Keeffe's husband and dealer, showed a more businesslike demeanor.
But the artist's letters continued to be sprinkled with expressions of unexpected anticipation, flexibility and cheer.
Even after Stieglitz suffered a heart attack, O'Keeffe determined to keep her appointment with at least a "very short visit." And she described her upcoming trip with the expectation that everything would be "very pleasant."
Just how much significance O'Keeffe attached to her visit can be seen in her attire.
Contrary to many reports, one of which describes her as "simply dressed, with no make-up, her long hair in a bun," the artist donned a silky white dress and let her hair down.
"There are a lot of myths that suggest she was difficult, that she was reluctant, that she dressed down -- but it's not true," Madonia says.
"She was dressed in the height of fashion. She was wearing open-toed, high-heel shoes."
Equally telling is the selection of paintings that O'Keeffe and Stieglitz assembled for her brief exhibition.
Though modest in size, the collection of eight images -- which Madonia identified through a handwritten insurance inventory found in the college archives -- represented every major phase of the critical period in which O'Keeffe achieved international prominence.
The number of canvases grew to nine, in fact, after Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose husband was then underwriting the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, gave the college a striking O'Keeffe painting of a magnolia blossom in order to honor the occasion.
The doctoral show also included such now-famous works as "Deer's Skull with Pedernal," an innovative blend of still life and landscape elements that was later acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Perhaps even better known today is the small but spectacular "Red Poppy," a 1927 work that the U.S. Postal Service transformed into an immensely popular commemorative stamp on the 10th anniversary of O'Keeffe's death.
"Williamsburg may well find a grateful bond," Bryan said in the 1938 ceremony, "in recalling that in its quiet atmosphere, her talents for vision and craftsmanship were first given an opportunity to mature."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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