Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe (1889 - 1961)
Variations on a Lighthouse Theme III, c. 1830
Oil on canvas
22 x 17 inches
Signed on the reverse: IDA TEN EYCK O’KEEFFE
Original George Of frame
Private collection, California
Park Art Galleries, New York, 1939, Paintings and Monographs by Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, one of nos. 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13
Lighthouses served as a primary source of inspiration for Ida O’Keeffe, the younger sister of famed modernist Georgia O’Keeffe. In her application for the WPA Public Works of Art project, Ida highlighted her enthusiasm for lighthouses, submitting photographs of three lighthouse works along with her submission. She also reported that she was working on a lighthouse fresco at the time. [Archives of American Art, WPA records, Public Works of Art applications, February 1, 1934 and March 8, 1934].
Raised in an artistic household in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Ida O’Keeffe inherited the rather unenviable position of being the younger sister of one of the most famous woman artists of all time. In addition to Georgia (1887-1986), both of Ida’s grandmothers, Mary Catherine O’Keeffe and Isabel Wycoff, were artists. Ida painted in oil and watercolor, and worked as a printmaker, primarily in monotypes. She spent the early part of her career teaching art in Virginia. Whether for practical reasons (the O’Keeffe family’s financial situation was perpetually unstable) or patriotic zeal in the wake of World War I, she studied nursing, graduating from Mount Sinai Hospital in 1921. Even as a nurse, Ida retained her artistic ties, serving as Taos Art Colony patron Mabel Dodge Luhan’s private nurse during the summer of 1929. Eventually Ida gravitated back toward the art world, returning to Columbia University to obtain her M.A. in fine arts in 1932.
As Georgia O’Keeffe’s biographer Laurie Lisle has observed, a high degree of sibling rivalry existed with in the O’Keeffe family, and “certainly her sisters got the emphatic message that Georgia wanted to be the only O’Keeffe who painted” [Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe (1980), pp. 202-3]. When their sister Catherine O’Keeffe Klenert (who had no formal art training) was given a solo exhibition at Delphic Studios in 1933—where she showed flower paintings extremely imitative of Georgia’s work—Georgia refused to speak to her until she gave up painting four years later. Georgia viewed Ida as a more serious competitive threat, even from the time they were youngsters, when the adults in the family thought Ida the more artistically talented of the two. Lisle notes that Georgia’s tendency toward stormy familial relationships “was especially the case with the multi-talented Ida, who was two years younger than Georgia and had called herself a painter until the time of her death.” Although her brother-in-law Alfred Stieglitz was fond of Ida and held her work in high regard, Georgia forbade him from ever exhibiting Ida’s work, effectively ensuring that Ida’s artistic career would be a difficult one. For her part, Ida irritated Georgia by remarking every so often that “all she needed was her own Stieglitz to put her on the map as an artist.” Apparently up until the day she died, Ida continued to believe she was the more talented of the two sisters [Lisle, pp. 161-2].
Ida exhibited frequently throughout the 1930s, winning awards at major juried exhibitions including the Southern States Art League and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, and had several well-reviewed solo exhibitions of her own in New York galleries, including the Delphic Studios in 1933 (where she exhibited alongside some of her grandmothers’ works) and 1937, the Park Art Galleries in 1939, and the Argent Gallery in 1940. Adept in several artistic mediums, Ida also created a mural, God’s House, for the WPA, and published an illustrated book, Forest Indians, in 1938. Critics commented favorably on the “mood and atmosphere” of her monotypes and termed her flower paintings “especially expert” [Howard Devree, “A Reviewer’s Notebook,” New York Times, January 26, 1939 and April 28, 1940]. Ida frequently worked with the same subject matter in several different media, completing a monotype, then painting the same subject in oil, or vice versa.
New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell singled out Ida’s Highland Lighthouse series (which may have included the present work) in his review of her 1933 exhibition at Delphic Studios, observing that in them “she plays boldly with abstract theories” [“Another O’Keeffe Emerges,” New York Times, March 29, 1933, p. 11]. The geometrically abstracted elements in Variations III call to mind the notion of “dynamic symmetry,” an influential concept linking art and mathematics, which (although it had roots in ancient Greece) gained a wide following in the first part of the twentieth century when scholar Jay Hambridge published a controversial treatise on the subject in 1920.
Although O’Keeffe’s career was overshadowed by that of her famous older sister during her lifetime (and perhaps more so after her death), she received much praise for her paintings and was the subject of a posthumous exhibition in Santa Fe in 1974. Variations on a Lighthouse Theme III is a fine example of her crisp, clean, modernist style.