Georgia

A Novel of Georgia O'Keeffe Trade Paperback

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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • In a dazzling work of historical fiction in the vein of Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, Dawn Tripp brings to life Georgia O’Keeffe, her love affair with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and her quest to become an independent artist.

This is not a love story. If it were, we would have the same story. But he has his, and I have mine.

In 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe is a young, unknown art teacher when she travels to New York to meet Stieglitz, the famed photographer and art dealer, who has discovered O’Keeffe’s work and exhibits it in his gallery. Their connection is instantaneous. O’Keeffe is quickly drawn into Stieglitz’s sophisticated world, becoming his mistress, protégé, and muse, as their attraction deepens into an intense and tempestuous relationship and his photographs of her, both clothed and nude, create a sensation.

Yet as her own creative force develops, Georgia begins to push back against what critics and others are saying about her and her art. And soon she must make difficult choices to live a life she believes in.

A breathtaking work of the imagination, Georgia is the story of a passionate young woman, her search for love and artistic freedom, the sacrifices she will face, and the bold vision that will make her a legend.

Praise

“Complex and original . . . Georgia conveys O’Keeffe’s joys and disappointments, rendering both the woman and the artist with keenness and consideration.”The New York Times Book Review

“As magical and provocative as O’Keeffe’s lush paintings of flowers that upended the art world in the 1920s . . . [Dawn] Tripp inhabits Georgia’s psyche so deeply that the reader can practically feel the paintbrush in hand as she creates her abstract paintings and New Mexico landscapes. . . . Evocative from the first page to the last, Tripp’s Georgia is a romantic yet realistic exploration of the sacrifices one of the foremost artists of the twentieth century made for love.”USA Today

“Sexually charged . . . insightful . . . Dawn Tripp humanizes an artist who is seen in biographies as more icon than woman. Her sensuous novel is as finely rendered as an O’Keeffe painting.”The Denver Post

“A vivid work forged from the actual events of O’Keeffe’s life . . . [Tripp] imbues the novel with a protagonist who forces the reader to consider the breadth of O’Keeffe’s talent, business savvy, courage and wanderlust. . . . It’s this inquisitive spirit, one that is constantly seeking, exploring, learning and experimenting in both her personal and professional lives, that drives the novel. . . . O’Keeffe as a character is vividly alive as she grapples with success, fame, integrity, love and family.”Salon

“Masterful . . . The book is a lovely portrayal of an iconic artist who is independent and multidimensional. Tripp’s O’Keeffe is a woman hoping to break free of conventional definitions of art, life and gender, as well as a woman of deep passion and love.”Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Dawn Tripp breaks new ground in this fictionalized account of the artist's years with photographer Alfred Stieglitz… Tripp, making the bold choice to write in O'Keeffe's first-person point of view, succeeds brilliantly. The novel does not read like Tripp's version of O'Keeffe - this is the artist herself, whispering her secrets to the reader… The novel is not so much a love story as the tale of a woman coming into her own…The story of Georgia O’Keeffe burns a pure, bright flame.” Providence Journal 

“American artist Georgia O’Keeffe blazes across the pages in Tripp’s tour de force about this indomitable woman, whose life was both supported and stymied by the love of her life, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. . . . [Readers] will feel the passion that infused her work and love life that emboldened her canvases. . . . The relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, and her metamorphosis from lover to wife to jilted partner, is poignantly drawn. Tripp has hit her stride here, bringing to life one of the most remarkable artists of the twentieth century with veracity, heart, and panache.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A dazzling exploration of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic career and the deeply human woman behind the cultural icon . . . Tripp’s writing is the linguistic equivalent of O’Keeffe’s art: bold, luminous, full of unusual juxtapositions. . . . While it will appeal to fans of O’Keeffe’s work, Georgia will also draw readers who love a compelling story. By exploring one woman’s struggle to be seen and valued for herself, Tripp asks important questions about gender, love and the roles of criticism and public image in art.”Shelf Awareness

“[A] powerful interpretation of [O’Keeffe’s] personal growth throughout her relationship with Stieglitz. As vibrant and colorful as one would hope for a story about this beloved artist.”Booklist
 
“Tripp’s writing is romantic, poetic, and flows as smoothly as her artist subject’s brushstrokes in her famous floral studies.”Library Journal

“Gorgeous . . . O’Keeffe’s iron grip on her legacy and her need to reinvent herself in the Southwest is a key part of this exquisitely told story.”BookPage
 
“A smart, immersive read . . . Tripp has done a brilliant job of capturing these two larger-than-life personalities and their circle. She does not flinch as she details the struggle and many costs (personal and professional) this ‘woman painter’ paid to achieve her autonomy and agency. . . . Elegant writing . . . and lots of delicious art-world detail will make you want to put this on the very top of the books on your nightstand.”Library Journal
 
“This breathtaking novel plunges deep into the two-way relationship between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz—passionate lovers, artist and muse. . . . Sensual and intimate, heart-wrenching and triumphant: if you read only one book this year, let it be Georgia.”Historical Novels Review

“Tripp’s best work yet. . . . She takes a household-name artist, one whom most people know next-to-nothing about in terms of personal or love life, and paints a vivid portrait of the artist, using a palette of passion, temper, ego, jealousy, desire, selfishness—all the hallmarks of artistic genius—so believable, so cinematic, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.”South Coast Today
 
“Richly imagined . . . This is the story of Georgia as artist and mistress, and one of the most fascinating relationships in the history of art. Tripp has painted a beautiful love story.”Book Riot

Georgia is a uniquely American chronicle . . . and, in the end, a book about a talent so fierce it crushed pretty much everything in its path—a rare story of artistic triumph. . . . Tripp expertly makes drama of two traditional themes in the O’Keeffe story—the romance with Stieglitz and the development of her art—but it’s the track about her art and his management of it and her struggle not to be dominated by him that makes her novel compelling. . . . In most first-person novels, the character talks to you. Here, she recollects with you—in her heart as well as her head. Which is to say that Dawn Tripp writes in much the same way as O’Keeffe painted: in vivid color and subtle shade.”—Jesse Kornbluth, Head Butler

“I devoured this dazzling novel about an American icon. Dawn Tripp brings Georgia O’Keeffe so fully to life on every page and, with great wisdom, examines the very nature of love, longing, femininity, and art.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine and The Engagements

“In this masterly novel, Dawn Tripp erases the boundary between writer and character, bringing O’Keefe’s voice, essence, and vision to life. Georgia is a dazzling, brilliant work about the struggle between artist and woman, between self and the other, between love and the necessity to break free of it. The luminous sensuality of the writing glows from every page, drawing the reader into the splendor and machinations of the New York City art world between the wars, revealing both Georgia O’Keeffe and Dawn Tripp as the great artists they are.”—B. A. Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of The Art Forger and The Muralist

“Georgia O’Keeffe’s life became legendary even as she was living it, something she both invited and fought against. This is the fascinating tension at the heart of Dawn Tripp’s novel—a book that, like O’Keeffe’s paintings, is lush and rigorous, bold and subtle, sensual, cranky, deeply felt, and richly imagined.”—Joan Wickersham, author of The News from Spain

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I

1979, Abiquiu, New Mexico

I bought this house for the door. The house itself was a ruin, but I had to have that door. Over the years, I’ve painted it many times, all different ways: abstract, representational, blue, black, brown. I’ve painted it in the hot green of summer, in the dead of winter, clouds rushing past it, a lone yellow leaf drifting down. I painted the door open only once. Just before he died. In every picture after, it was closed.

This is not a love story. If it were, we would have the same story. But he has his, and I have mine. He used to say it all began with the charcoal abstractions I made in 1915 before I met him. I was twenty-seven, a schoolteacher, poor, driven only by a singular, relentless passion for my art. One night, I turned my back on everything I’d learned about what art should be, I locked the door of my room and got down on the floor with large sheets of paper and charcoal. I remember the cool hush of the night through the window as shapes poured out of the nub of charcoal in my hand.

Finished, I rolled up the drawings and sent them to my friend Anita Pollitzer in New York. She brought them to Stieglitz at his gallery. When he saw them, he told her, “These are the purest, fairest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.”

I knew who he was—everyone did. I’d met him once before though he would not remember. The father of modern photography. An icon of American art. In groundbreaking shows at 291, Alfred Stieglitz had introduced New York to the work of Picasso and Matisse. A brilliant photographer in his own right, he was known more for the careers of the artists he’d “made.”

I wrote to him at 291 and asked him to tell me what he saw in my charcoal drawings. He wrote back to say he wanted to show my work, I should send him more. We exchanged letters back and forth across the country. I spent every extra dollar on brushes, paper, paint.

Over the years, this would be the story he told, again and again, until it became The Story: those charcoals; his discovery of me; our correspondence that began shortly after. He would say I was what he had been waiting for. What he had always known was meant to exist.

Because Stieglitz used words with a certain unique force, his version of our story prevailed.

“You will be a legend,” he said to me once.

I laughed.

“No,” he said. “I see it. It’s already in you.”

Legend. A word he would use again and again.

He had faith in me. He did not give me greatness, but his faith in my early work gave me the space to achieve it. He knew this then, and perhaps on some level he also knew that for me to fully become the legend he saw, I would have to leave him.

Tonight in New Mexico, so many years later, the air is clear. My sight is gone, but I know this view by heart. The ropy silvered turns of the road passing below my window, the shrubby heads of the cottonwoods, the river valley, the distant line of hills. The shapes of the world out there are shadowy. Lean and contoured strokes, they glow. The moon shines and cuts the night open.

There’s a grain of truth to Stieglitz’s version of things: The story of my art in his life did begin the moment he unrolled those charcoals. But to my mind, our story began more than a year later. I was still teaching, at a small college in Texas, sending him my pictures as I made them. A curious intimacy had begun to evolve in our letters.

It was late May 1917 when Stieglitz wrote to say he had hung a small show of my watercolors and charcoals. My first show. It would be 291’s last. He was closing the gallery. The war. I felt my heart skip as I read those lines. What I’d give to see my things on those walls.

For three days, I walked around with his letter in my pocket. Then I went to the bank manager’s house on a Sunday and begged him to open, so I could withdraw the last two hundred dollars I had to buy a train ticket from Texas to New York.

I did not tell Stieglitz I was coming.

II

May 1917, New York

291. The walls are bare, already stripped. He looks up and when he sees me standing in the doorway, his face changes, softens to a simple pleasure, lit. “Georgia.”

He dismisses the two fellows he was speaking with.

“You’ve come all this way,” he says. “I had no idea you were coming to New York.”

“I know, I should have told you.”

“Your show was taken down two days ago. I’m sorry.”

His eyes are dark, piercing through his bent spectacles, a kind of deep-set fire in them; his hair thick and wild, turning steel gray. He is in his mid-fifties, nearly twice my age.

“Where are you staying?” he says.

“With a friend. Near Teachers College.”

His eyes have not left my face. “Wait,” he says. He goes into the back room and reappears with two of my pictures.

“Sit down.” He gestures to a chair.

I shake my head. “I’d rather stand.”

He pauses. “You aren’t going to leave?”

“Not yet.”

“Good.”

He begins to hang my art, piece after piece. My watercolor skies, my charcoal landscapes of the canyon with the humped shapes of cows, my numbered blues. He hangs them exactly as he’d placed them for the show. A sureness in how he handles them. Prophet. Seer. Giant of the art world. Iconoclast. The small room is hot. I can feel threads of sweat moving down my body, heat in my throat, in my hands.

He is married, I tell myself. A wife. A daughter. You’re his artist. Nothing more.

I think back to a day in February, his letters were piling up—sometimes five in a week—I had begun to dread their coming. Began to dread even more the impatient hunger I felt for them to come. And on that day, in the one free hour I had between classes, instead of going to the post office to see what he had sent, I made myself not go. I bought a box of bullets instead, took my gun and some old tin cans, walked out across the plains, threw the cans onto the ground, and shot at them like I could blow that hunger right apart—

Now, at 291, he strides past me. The gallery walls are no longer empty, as they were when I arrived. The room has sparked to life.

One piece does not hang straight. He crosses back to it and gently shifts the frame’s edge to be just as he wants it. Then it is done. The room is very still. Light filters through the skylight to the floor.

He turns to me. “Look,” he says. My eyes flow slowly over the walls, over my art. “You should have been here to see the whole show,” he says. “You would have seen how it stunned them. I can’t tell you how many times I had that thought: If only she were here.” His voice drops. A nameless, burning thing between us. I laugh, an awkward laugh, but it breaks the spell and things are light again. I am light, and he is just a man. I walk with him through the room, looking at my pictures on the walls. We pause at a painting of the Palo Duro canyon—the golden sloped walls, rimmed with fleecy clouds, wet blue sky in the upper right corner.

“That country out there is entirely unlike New York, isn’t it?” he says. “And you love it, don’t you?”

“The sky is just so big. The distances. It’s hard to describe. It reminds me of Sun Prairie.”

“In Wisconsin?”

“Yes. Where I grew up.”

Farmland rolling away, wheat like golden snow. But it was the sky I loved most—the beautiful free waste of it. When chores on the farm were done, there was nothing to do but wander out into that sky.

We are still facing the picture of the canyon, standing near enough that I realize I could stretch my fingers and touch the point at his sleeve where the wrist disappears at the cuff.

“It’s important that you work more in oil,” he says. “You’ll have to—you know.”

“Oil is stubborn. I don’t always like it.”

He laughs. “You will learn to.”

It is the future he is speaking of.

He quotes from the critics, some of the reviews. I have already seen them. He sent them to me and, though I could not quite bear to read them, I notice the words live on his tongue: exile, privation, flowing, rise, mystical, in a sensitized line.

I am aware of him standing near me—so near, it feels almost unsafe.

“I want to photograph you with your pictures,” he suddenly says. “May I?”

I nod. He goes into the back room and returns with the camera and tripod.

“Stand there,” he says, pointing to one of my blues. “In front of that. No, not to the side, put it behind you. Make it the background of you.”

Inch to the left, three inches forward, half an inch back. He knows what he wants. “No, less. Turn your chin. Yes. That’s it.” He disappears behind the camera under the worn black cloth.

“Look directly here.” His voice snakes into the room like it is not his voice, but another—softer, lower, streaming from the lens.

I can feel him, watching me, waiting, the other side of the camera, the silence of the room charged now as he waits for the light to shift and fall a certain way, an expression on my face that he is waiting for, he will wait until he has it.

“There,” he says. “Now. Whatever you are thinking, don’t lose it. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Nothing.”

The shutter clicks. I am counting. Counting. It takes so long—but there’s a kind of raw pleasure in holding still, like I am stone on the outside, my heart beating through my skin so deep and loud I’m sure he will hear it. I’m aware of his eyes behind the camera, the hot dark work of them, and I feel my body rise.

“Don’t move,” he whispers. “Georgia.”

III

I stay in New York for ten days. He invites me to lunch and we walk the streets, laughing, talking. The buildings seem to shimmer, spring sun striking off them. He tells me about Oaklawn, his family’s summer home at Lake George—how he always starts to feel the pull of it this time of year, in spring when the buds swell and the world is busting open.

“I love the Lake the way you love your plains and sky.”

I glance at him. A small white dog runs across the path in front of us, a child running after, long spindling legs churning. He talks about his daughter, Kitty, who will enter Smith College in the fall. He calls his wife Mrs. Stieglitz, a strain in the silence that follows.

He asks about my family. I talk about my four sisters: Catherine and Anita are married, Ida’s a nurse; Claudie, the youngest, still in school, lives out in Texas with me. I don’t talk about our father who turned to drink and disappeared. I don’t mention my mother who died last spring.

We come to a man selling oranges and stop for one. I peel it as we walk, my fingers tacky with the juice.

“Do you miss Texas when you’re here?” he asks.

“Right now?” I say lightly and smile. “No.”

There is a push in the silence between us. I am keenly aware of the stink of the horses, the blare of the cars, voices passing, trees like green shadows. A carriage passes by.

“You must continue to send me your things,” he says.

“Even with no gallery?”

“I’ll find a way to show them. And you must send them carefully—better packaging, more postage. They must arrive safe.”

“It’s hard to imagine there will be no 291.”

I see him frown. “There was no choice anymore. The war. The expense.”

“It just feels wrong that something with such meaning would not exist.”

“It will exist somewhere else. Just keep making your pictures and send them to me.” He smiles then. “You, Great Woman Child.”

He has called me crazy things like this in his letters. “How can I be both?” I say. “Both Great Woman and Child. Tell me. I’ve wondered this.”

I expect him to laugh, but he doesn’t.

“That’s what gives your art greatness,” he says simply. “You have what a child has—a pure unpolluted instinct. What I call Whiteness. And you are a woman.”

So casual—how he uses that word, Greatness—as if he’s unfolding something I already know.

Back at 291, he introduces me to a few of his circle—the men. There’s the collector Jacob Dewald, the inventor Henry Gaisman, the painter Arthur Dove. They have already seen my pictures—and are full of compliments and praise. I briefly meet John Marin, the best-known of Stieglitz’s artists. He’ll render smashed sunlight on a coast in forked block lines. When I first saw his work, it reminded me of Kandinsky.

Stiegtliz’s newest protégé, Paul Strand, is also there. He has a work apron on, a hammer in his hand. He looks like a boy dressed up in someone else’s costume. A solemn round face, blue eyes. He shows me one of his photographs of bowls—four very ordinary kitchen bowls—but cropped close up, disorienting.

“So beautiful!” I say. And it is—how the curve of one bowl falls into the curve of the next—a definite, near-perfect balance in resolute asymmetry.

“A similar sense of feeling to your blue spiral, Georgia,” Stieglitz says, coming over.

“Different, though,” I say.

“How?”

“Here, in the bowls, the movement is happening in many directions at once. Not only one. The cropping intensifies that. It magnifies the motion and makes us believe it continues.” I point at a shadow in the shape of a blade, sharply cropped, at the print’s edge.

“Exactly right,” Stieglitz says, a beat of triumph in his voice, “although I have to admit I myself didn’t see it quite that way before.” He looks at Strand, then at the others. They nod assent, his admiration echoed in their eyes, and in that moment I understand: There are things this man values in me, things he wants. He treats me as an equal, more than equal, and for that reason alone, others will see me that way.

On June 1, there is only rain, as if the city itself will pour away. I wake at dawn and watch the world outside slide down the window glass.

At the train station, Gaisman goes off to check the schedule. Stieglitz and I are alone on the platform. The ache is almost unbearable. A strand of hair falls across my eyes. He moves it.

“Lovely, You,” he says.

Reader's Guide

1. Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman many people know of, but her life as a young woman in New York is a chapter that is less well known. How did your understanding of O’Keeffe and her art change as you were reading Georgia?

2. O’Keeffe was a groundbreaking female artist at a time when the art world was dominated by men. O’Keeffe had to navigate this world – of male artists, male critics and gallery owners – to build a successful career without sacrificing her unique artistic vision and her sense of herself as a woman. Discuss some of the challenges O’Keeffe faces in Georgia. Discuss how those challenges as well as the risks she took – as a woman and as an artist – feel relevant to women today.

3. Think about O’Keeffe’s childhood. Do you feel that the lessons she learned growing up shaped her early relationship with Stieglitz and the choices she would make later? Although O’Keeffe’s mother died from tuberculosis a year before O’Keeffe traveled to New York to see her first show at 291, O’Keeffe is haunted by her mother, and by the choices that her mother made. Why were these choices significant, and what was their impact on O’Keeffe?

4. O’Keeffe’s passion for the landscape is a powerful engine for her art. At one point, early in the novel, O’Keeffe thinks to herself that Stieglitz and his faith in her art are “like that open space, vast like these plains, this night, vast enough it seems sometimes to hold me.” Do you agree with this? In what ways is this perception true when O’Keeffe first meets Stieglitz, and in what ways does it change as she matures? Do you feel her experience is one common to women as they evolve and change in the course of their lives?

5. In the opening chapter of the book, O’Keeffe contends: “This is not a love story. If it were, we would have the same story. But he has his, and I have mine.” What do you think O’Keeffe means when she says this? In what ways is Georgia a love story? How does O’Keeffe’s understanding of the word ‘love’ change in the course of the novel?

6. When their relationship was going through a challenging time, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz from New Mexico:
 “There is a bond – that is my feeling for you – it is deeper than anything you can do to me –”
What are your first impressions of this statement? Do these words reflect Georgia’s strength and self-awareness? Her commitment to Stieglitz? Or do they reflect something else? How do these words interface with Georgia’s struggle to balance her own needs with the demands of her relationship? How do these words play out in the course of the story?

7. Discuss O’Keeffe’s breakdown. Why do you think she falls apart?

8. Discuss what it means to O’Keeffe when she feels she is unable to paint, and when she says: “This isn’t just him, and what he’s done to me. It’s what I’ve let him do.” Do you agree? Do you believe that every relationship – no matter how passionate or spiritual – is a kind of transaction?

9. Desire is a powerful force for O’Keeffe – artistic desire; desire for place, connection, and solitude; desire between two people. How does O’Keeffe’s relationship to desire change? What does her exchange with Toomer toward the end of the book say about what she has learned? Discuss the ways in which love and desire overlap and diverge. Which is more vital to O’Keeffe? Which do you believe is more vital in your own life?

10. Georgia’s relationship with Stieglitz was complex and controversial – it was a source of artistic growth for both artists, but it was also restricting. Discuss the dynamics in the relationship. Do they remind you of relationships in your own life – either relationships you have observed or relationships you have experienced? How have those relationships impacted your life? What have you learned from them?

11. Reflect on O’Keeffe’s relationships with other women in the novel. What did those relationships mean to her? How did those relationships differ from her various relationships with men – including Stieglitz, Strand, Steichen, Rosenfeld, and others?

12. In the final sections of the novel, O’Keeffe becomes the legendary artist we know. What sacrifices does she make as a result? Do you feel these were sacrifices she had to make in order to live and work on her own terms? Do you think those choices are unique to her? In what ways do you feel they are common choices that all women face?

13. If you could have one O’Keeffe painting in your home, which one would it be? Before reading this novel, would you have chosen a different O’Keeffe painting? How has your understanding of O’Keeffe and her art changed as a result of reading Georgia?

14. What do you think it means to be an icon? What did it mean to O’Keeffe during the time she was with Stieglitz? How did her identity and portrayal as an American icon change over the course of her life?

15. O’Keeffe is known for being fiercely independent, and she is often seen as a “foremother of the feminist movement.” O’Keeffe herself, however, publicly eschewed any “–ism,” including feminism. Consider the gender dynamics in Georgia. Do you feel it was the politics of O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz, her upbringing and the hardship of her young adult life, or her unique creative vision that shaped her resolute unwillingness to be associated with any movement, artistic or otherwise? Why do you feel that was so important to her? Discuss.

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