Georgia O’Keeffe, health food devotee: the pioneer of modernism’s favourite recipes | Art (2024)


The American artist lived until she was 98 – and a new book of her favourite recipes might give some clues as to how

Carmel Melouney

Mon 26 Jun 2017 14.00 EDT

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6 years old

Georgia O’Keeffe was an icon of the American art world: a pioneer of abstract modernism, with boldly innovative paintings of flowers and bleached animal skulls. Lesser known is that her diet, too, was ahead of its time.

A new cookbook of O’Keeffe’s personal recipes – Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art and Landscape, by the Australian author Robyn Lea – reveals she was a forerunner to today’s organic, slow food movement, a health food devotee who made her own yoghurt.

A hundred years ago, O’Keeffe’s first solo exhibition opened in New York and, in 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 set a record price for a work by a female artist, selling at Sotheby’s for $44.4m. With her art so highly coveted, it is unsurprising that an astute luxury publisher such as Assouline believes there is also a receptive market awaiting her recipes. But her lifestyle habits will be of interest to an audience beyond art aficionados since O’Keeffe lived until the age of 98.

In photographs, O’Keeffe appears unsmiling and stern-looking, dressed in a largely androgynous uniform of monochromes and striking silhouettes. She was often photographed by her husband and mentor, the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz – but knowing what she liked to eat goes some way to humanise her beyond his powerful black and white images.

“You kind of feel like you’re reading someone’s diary in a way, eating the food they ate, because it’s quite a personal thing,” Lea says. “She really was quite a force for this new way of thinking across so many levels, whether in art, food, dress and interiors.”

The book is a companion piece of sorts to Lea’s 2015 book, Dinner with Jackson Pollock, which featured the personal recipes of the celebrated modern painter. Lea believes it is natural that she should follow up her Pollock book with one on O’Keeffe. “If you think of the hero male icon and the hero female icon of the 20th century in art in America, they are the two.”

When Lea began conducting online research from her home in Melbourne, she knew nothing of O’Keeffe’s eating habits. It was four months later in March 2016 that she visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Centre in New Mexico and discovered a trove of O’Keeffe’s handwritten recipes, along with magazine cuttings and instructional manuals for her yoghurt maker and various kitchen accoutrements. “What fascinated me was how the three elements of food, art and nature worked together both visually and philosophically in O’Keeffe’s life,” Lea says.

Stieglitz described his wife as “quite a cook, loves experimenting – is in everything she does, what she is as a painter [sic]”. During summers with the Stieglitz family at Lake George in upstate New York, O’Keeffe made meals so delicious that Stieglitz even joked about opening a restaurant.

O’Keeffe had been raised on a farm in Wisconsin, and made the first of many trips to northern New Mexico in the summer of 1929. The stark landscape had a profound influence on her art. From the mid-1930s, she began spending a lot more time in New Mexico, away from Stieglitz in New York. In 1940, she bought a house at Ghost Ranch, northwest of Santa Fe. At the end of 1945, she bought a second property only 25km from the Ghost Ranch, a ruined hacienda in the village of Abiquiú. It was here that she finally grew her dream garden of fruit and vegetables. O’Keeffe moved to Abiquiu permanently in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, and she remained in New Mexico until her death in 1986.

Lea’s book reveals the great lengths O’Keeffe went to to procure superior quality raw ingredients. She requested walnuts, dates, wheat germ and brewer’s yeast from her sister Claudia, while goat’s milk was procured from neighbouring Franciscan priests. O’Keeffe believed water had to already be boiling before corn was picked from the garden (to avoid loss of vitamins); organic whole grains needed to be ground for homemade bread; and herbs were to be harvested from the garden and hung to dry. O’Keeffe was also a devotee of health drinks such as vitamin A co*cktail, a vegetable juice, and Tiger’s Milk, a yogurt and fruit drink.

O’Keeffe was passionate about sharing her nutritional knowledge with others and would make healthy smoothies for friends on neighbouring properties, insisting they drank them. “Even her gardener, she’d make him have these smoothies saying, ‘You’ll live longer, you’ll be healthier,’” Lea says.

Fifty of her favourite recipes are included in Lea’s book, including brightly coloured vegetable soups (a creamy carrot soup adorns the cover) as well as breads and salads. Lea says she isn’t sure whether the vivid colours in O’Keeffe’s recipes was motivated by her obsession with colour, or more because she only wanted things only cooked to the point where they were right to eat and not over boiled. But it’s hard not to conclude that the colours of such healthy dishes must have pleased the artist.

O’Keeffe also believed that food could enhance artistic output. The book contains an anecdote about O’Keeffe quizzing the artist John Marin about what he ate for breakfast on the day he painted three works admired by O’Keeffe. “She really did believe that, if you ate something good for breakfast, that had the power to help your creative work, your expression,” Lea says. While such thinking is common now, it was not in 1925.

“It feels like a new discovery in a way, that people are talking like that today, but it seems she was thinking that way before these ideas were scientifically proven.”

• Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art and Landscape will be launched in Australia at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 5 July, to coincide with O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism, which opens at AGNSW on 1 July


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Georgia O’Keeffe, health food devotee: the pioneer of modernism’s favourite recipes | Art (2024)


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