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O’Keeffe in retrospect

Alfred Stieglitz made this photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe in 1931. (Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

Alfred Stieglitz made this photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe in 1931. (Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

SANTA FE — In a rare flicker of candor, Georgia O’Keeffe gazes at the cat sprawled across her lap, her face incandescent with delight.

Most photographs show the artist posing in stoic splendor, her carefully arranged body draped in black, her eyes focused and penetrating.

Several portraits in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s “New Photography Acquisitions” show a more revealing side of the artist. Two show the only known depictions of her working. Others reveal the original architecture and furnishings of her homes at both Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú. The exhibition opens Friday, March 27, with photographs dating from 1917-1960s by some of the greatest photographers of the time: her husband Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, John Loengard, Arnold Newman and Tony Vaccaro.

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The museum recently bought the nearly 300-image collection from New York’s Mitchell-Innes-Nash Gallery. O’Keeffe hand-picked the photographs for her 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

“It was the first time MOMA had a major exhibition of a woman artist,” said Cody Hartley, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “This gives us even further insight into her life.”

The collection augments the more than 2,000 images already at the O’Keeffe.

The photographs bring the viewer into the day-to-day life of the artist as she relaxes on the porch of the Stieglitz home at Lake George, N.Y. A hairdresser brushes her long hair as a cat dangles from her lap. Taken by an unknown photographer (possibly Stieglitz), the image captures the artist in the early 1920s before she was famous.

“She’s smiling,” Hartley said. “She may be aware the camera’s there, but she’s dropped her guard.”

A Stieglitz photo taken at Lake George shows the young artist holding a brush dipped in watercolors. She sits next to the leaves and vines tangling beneath the porch of the family home. That image, along with the Ansel Adams shot of O’Keeffe painting “Gerald’s Tree” in her car, are the only two known to exist of her working. The photo of the artist with her watercolors solved some pigment puzzles at the museum, Hartley said.

Her water glass is dark with paint, explaining the combined chemistries found in her watercolor paints, he explained. She never changed the water.

A 1938 Adams portrait of O’Keeffe dragging a steer’s rib cage and skull across the New Mexico desert shows her gathering her own subject matter.

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“She was never afraid of dead things,” Hartley said.

A perfectly composed Stieglitz portrait of the artist relaxing barefoot atop a Lake George bench captures her casually preparing for a swim, her shoes and sandals kicked off atop the dock.

The line of her back mirrors the line of the bench, which matches the diagonal line of the stair railing.

“It’s a series of angles and shapes,” Hartley said. “It’s almost an abstraction of her body.”

O’Keeffe always emanated a magnetic persona. When she was in art school, her fellow students regularly asked her to pose.

“She had to decide whether she wanted to be an artist or a model,” Hartley said. “People were just fascinated by her. She’s easily one of the most photographed women of the 20th century.

“She changed most of the people who met her,” he continued. “She gave them a bigger sense of the world.”

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