On the trail of Georgia O’Keeffe

“O’Keeffe is beautiful. She is beautiful in every respect,” said her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

The remark expresses his appreciation not just for Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings (which Stieglitz was the first to show at his New York gallery in 1916) or the elegance of her face and form (captured in countless Stieglitz photos), but of her persona and the way she lived.

Born in 1887, she came to prominence long before the feminist revolution, forged an uncommon relationship with her husband founded on their shared dedication to art, and later had the courage to let her work consume her, even though it meant doing without the warmth of human contact. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she spent the last four decades of her life at an isolated adobe ranch house in New Mexico’s Chama River Valley, painting the red-rock mesas of the nearby Jemez Range. She grew ever more solitary and crusty, hiring a deaf housekeeper so she wouldn’t have to talk. “Sometimes I think I’m half mad with love for this place,” she said. In the end, it’s her love of place that endears her to me most.

O’Keeffe wouldn’t approve of the way people like me draw inspiration from her life. But it was an incontestably compelling life, especially for women, as anyone who reads “Portrait of an Artist” ( Washington Square Press, $14), Laurie Lisle’s biography of O’Keeffe, knows. From it and other sources, I found a number of places O’Keeffe admirers can visit--though the artist would have a sharp word for such pilgrimages.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe in Abiquiu, N.M., was the artist’s winter home during the latter part of her life. You can see her garden, the patio where she painted and her austere bedroom.

Ghost Ranch Conference Center, about 15 miles north of Abiquiu, is the dude ranch O’Keeffe discovered in 1929. She was so drawn to the place that she bought an old adobe house on the property five years later, where she spent her summers tramping over the high desert and painting. The ranch is now a Presbyterian conference center that welcomes all visitors, with guest accommodations, anthropology and paleontology displays, a campground, dining hall and trails that afford hikers the same views that O’Keeffe admired. The house she lived in is not open to visitors, though it currently is being restored as a study center for scholars.

Opened in 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in downtown Santa Fe is devoted entirely to the artist’s work, with 120 paintings dating from 1916 to 1980 (she died in 1986). There is a cafe and shop on the premises, and from Aug. 6 to Oct. 17 the museum will host a new exhibition of O’Keeffe still-lifes set against photomurals of some of the places where the artist lived and painted. The exhibition now is on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco after it leaves Santa Fe.

According to Ansel Adams, the wealthy literary and artistic hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan had “talons for talent"--which is why, after moving her Greenwich Village salon to a rambling adobe enclave in Taos, she fastened on Georgia O’Keeffe. The artist stayed at the Luhan house in 1929, painting at nearby Taos Pueblo and riding to the D.H. Lawrence ranch. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House is now a conference center hosting art and meditation workshops and a B&B, where you can stay in O’Keeffe’s small first-floor room for $75.

The Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., contain some of the best collections of O’Keeffe’s work. The painter attended school at the Art Institute in 1905, and much later donated a set of 1,600 Stieglitz photographs to the National Gallery. Three pictures taken of O’Keeffe will be part of an exhibition there, “Photographs From the Collection,” starting today and ending July 5.

The New York Marriott Eastside in Manhattan was built in 1924, the year Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married. Known at the time as the Shelton Towers, it is where the couple lived for about a decade beginning in 1925. Their top-floor apartment had unimpeded views of the East River that inspired numerous O’Keeffe paintings.

O’Keeffe went to Canyon, Texas, about 20 miles south of Amarillo, in 1916 to teach art at West Texas State Normal College (now known as West Texas A & M University). While there, she fell in love with the surrounding prairie and nearby Palo Duro Canyon, where she did watercolors and a few oils. The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the West Texas A & M campus contains letters and photographs of O’Keeffe and one of the Palo Duro oils, “Red Landscape,” from 1917. The nearby Hudspeth House B&B is where she took her meals while living across the street with a professor.

Sun Prairie, Wis., about 20 miles northeast of Madison, is where O’Keeffe was born and raised. Her childhood home burned in the 1970s, but the Sun Prairie Public Library has a collection of O’Keeffe family records.

Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio, Abiquiu, N.M., off U.S. 84; telephone (505) 685-4539; open for touring Tues., Thurs. and Fri. April 6-Nov. 23, by appointment.

Ghost Ranch Conference Center, north of Abiquiu, N.M., also off U.S. 84; tel. (505) 685-4333.

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St., Santa Fe, N.M.; tel. (505) 995-0785.

Mabel Dodge Luhan House, 240 Morada Lane, Taos, N.M.; tel. (800) 846-2235 or (505) 751-9686.

New York Marriott Eastside, 525 Lexington Ave., N.Y.; tel. (800) 228-9290 or (212) 755-4000.

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2401 4th Ave., Canyon, Texas; tel. (806) 651-2245.

Hudspeth House B&B, 1905 4th Ave., Canyon, Texas; tel. (806) 655-9800.