The pure poetry of the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe has inspired stage productions and even operatic singing. In fact, composer Kevin Puts’ Letters from Georgia, sung by soprano Renée Fleming, plays to a sold-out audience at the Santa Fe Opera on Aug. 10.
But just when you thought that there was little more light to be shed on the inspirations, inner turmoil, and motivations of O’Keeffe, a newly uncovered cache of her letters, along with those of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, have become a part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.
“One of the things that’s significant is the time period,” said Barbara Bair, a historian in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. “The letters span from 1929 to 1947. That’s a very key period in Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, with 1929 being when she first started her series of extended stays in New Mexico.”
The as-yet-unpublished letters total 157 items and were formerly in the possession of Henwar Rodakiewicz, a documentary filmmaker. Rodakiewicz was a friend of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, and they each wrote to him separately. The filmmaker owned the H and M Ranch in Alcalde. When Rodakiewicz died in 1976, the letters passed into the possession of his third wife and were discovered when the home she lived in was sold. The collection was a purchase and gift to the library from designer Susan Todd and realtor Michael Kramm of Santa Fe.
The letters written by O’Keeffe and Stieglitz can be regarded as a major find. They offer rare insights into their personalities and, in the case of O’Keeffe, her artistic persona. Many of them were written in a period of great change for the painter as she was drawn, more and more, to the Southwest as a place to live and work. “The letters end in 1947 and Alfred Stieglitz dies in 1946,” Bair said. “That’s really when she’s saying goodbye to New York and planning to move permanently to New Mexico.”
In O’Keeffe’s letters, she describes the landscape she would eventually make her permanent home with eloquence and a descriptive power that evokes her paintings. In 1944, for instance, when describing the Cerro Pedernal — the Northern New Mexico mountain that became an oft-painted subject — she wrote, “It is hazy — and my mountain floats out light blue in the distance — like a dream ...” It’s hard not to think of her memorable views of the mountain when reading her words, more so even than the mountain itself. Her ashes were scattered there upon her death.
“One of the things that strikes me about reading O’Keeffe’s letters is how quickly you come to hear the artist’s voice, the particular cadence that comes across even in her correspondence,” said Ariel Plotek, curator of fine art at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Stieglitz, too, wrote extensively to Rodakiewicz, particularly later in life, when the photographer opened the last of his Manhattan galleries, An American Place, where he continued to showcase O’Keeffe’s work in one-woman shows. “Henwar becomes as close a friend to Alfred as he is to Georgia,” said Bair. “He’s very supportive of Stieglitz, including when he becomes frail in the last years of his life. Henwar was in New York a lot and helping him out.”
The Library of Congress has no immediate plans to digitize the collection, so researchers hoping to view the letters would have to do so on-site, at least for the time being. A catalogue record and finding aid are available at catalog.loc.gov. The manuscript reading room of the Library of Congress is located in the James Madison Building (101 Independence Ave., SE) in Washington, D.C. ◀