Updated: May 17
American artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and lived in many different places before settling in New Mexico - Chicago, New York City, New York’s Lake George, Charlottesville, Virginia and Amarillo, TX. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and from that time on she would declare that “I was always on my way back.” So many of us here in Abiquiu feel the same way.
In 1929 and 1930, O’Keeffe spent her first two summers as a guest at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s home in nearby Taos. When she returned in 19321 and 1932, she stayed in Alcalde, just outside of Taos. While in Alcalde, she heard about a beautiful place in Abiquiu called Ghost Ranch - a place where O'Keeffe just might find the privacy, remoteness and solitude that she was seeking. From that moment on, O'Keeffe began driving her Model-A Ford from Alcalde to Abiquiu - on a daily basis. She would park her car amidst the magical landscapes and paint from the backseat of her car. She loved the land, the vistas, the mountains, rocks and bones.
When O'Keeffe discovered Piedra Lumbre in Abiquiu, she felt she was on sacred land. Once she saw Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pedernal, the Red Cliffs, mesas of yellow and purple – she knew she was home. Starting in 1934, she would stay in Abiquiú whenever she visited New Mexico. Because her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer, lived in New York, O’Keeffe would split her time between New York and New Mexico, spending summers and falls in Abiquiú and returning to her husband and New York in winter months. It is said that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz wrote over 25,000 pages of love letters to each other during these times.
O’Keeffe went on to purchase two homes in Abiquiu – her home located on what is now Ghost Ranch property and her home/studio/garden in the village.
At the time, Ghost Ranch was owned by Arthur Pack and Carol Stanley. Pack and Stanley operated a dude ranch on the location, a business that originally caused O’Keeffe distress. But she loved the vistas and solitude of the land, so she continued to stay at the dude ranch as a guest of Pack. In 1937, Pack offered to let O'Keeffe stay in one of his homes on the property - Rancho de los Burros – as it was located away from the crowds and activities. O’Keeffe claimed, “As soon as I saw it, I knew I must have it.”
Rumor has it that O’Keeffe arrived in Abiquiú one year and found someone else staying in Rancho de los Burros. She was very angry that someone was in "her" home, and demanded to know why people were in “her house.” Pack tried to explain that it wasn’t her house, but she would not listen and insisted that he sell the home to her. Pack eventually gave in, and sold O’Keeffe the home and seven acres of land. This home would become her summer home in the desert because the home wasn’t winterized.
O’Keeffe also wanted a place suitable for the winter months and a place where she could have a garden to grow fruits and vegetables. She was very interested in an old adobe hacienda sitting on three acres of land in the village of Abiquiu, just down the road from St. Tomas Church. The house was a pueblo style adobe hacienda, with rooms arranged around an open plaza. The courtyard wall had a door in it, and when she saw the door, O’Keeffe said, “That wall with a door in it was something I had to have.” (Are we seeing a trend with things O'Keeffe "had to have"?)
The hacienda home was owned by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and they were not interested in selling it to O’Keeffe. The hacienda was a donation to the Archdiocese by Martin Bode; he made the donation for it to be used as a parish school. But O’Keeffe was persistent and in 1945 the Archdiocese sold her the hacienda for $10.
The hacienda was falling into disrepair – the oldest rooms in the house were built around 1744 - and O’Keeffe spent the next four years remodeling and rebuilding the home. As for the door in the courtyard? O’Keeffe made it a feature in many of her paintings. She decorated her home simply – in a modern style, with rocks and bones from her collection placed throughout the home. The butterfly shaped dining room table in the home was allegedly designed by O’Keeffe herself.
O'Keeffe started a garden outside the hacienda to grow herbs, vegetables and other plants. On Wednesdays and Fridays in the summer months, area student interns plant, maintain and harvest the same variety of vegetables that O'Keeffe originally grew in her garden.
After O’Keeffe’s husband, Stieglitz, died in 1946 and she settled his estate, O’Keeffe moved permanently from New York to New Mexico. She spent winters in her Abiquiu village hacienda, and summers in her home at Ghost Ranch.
In 1955 Arthur and Phoebe Pack donated the Ghost Ranch land to the Presbyterian Church. O’Keeffe was shocked and horrified – she did not want to share her land with the Church and she though Pack should have sold the land to her. Over the years, however, the relationship improved and the Presbyterian Church continued to respect her privacy – visitors were told that Rancho de los Burros was on private land with no public access.
O’Keeffe is the most celebrated female painter of all time, also the most photographed (thanks to her husband photographer.) The natural world that surrounded her – the landscape, rivers, mountains, lakes, arroyos, flowers, bones, rocks, shells, leaves, Cerro Pedernal, the Red Cliffs, Plaza Blanca and the Black Place – became the subjects for O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings. Her large flower paintings, which are so easily recognized, only make up about 10 percent of her work. Her most famous painting is probably Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1. This painting hung in the White House during President George Bush’s term. This painting sold for a whopping $44.4 million in 1994! O’Keeffe never signed her paintings; she expected people to recognize them!
When O’Keeffe began losing her vision, she turned to experimenting with clay sculpting. She continued working with clay sculpting until she was about 96 years old. You can see one of her clay pots in her bedroom when you take the Home and Studio tour.
O’Keeffe’s contributions to the Abiquiu area were significant - she assisted in funding buildings at Ghost Ranch, the Abiquiu Library, Abiquiu Elementary School and the Abiquiu community center.
O’Keeffe lived in the hacienda until her health began failing in 1984. At this time, she moved to Santa Fe to be closer to medical facilities. She died in Santa Fe on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. After her death, her ashes were spread along the top of her favorite mountain, Cerro Pedernal.
The O’Keeffe Home and Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and is now part of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
For many years, people referred to the Abiquiu area as "O'Keeffe Country." However, this is not an appropriate term. While O'Keeffe is one of Abiquiu's most famous residents, her presence was just a small part of the story of Abiquiu, with the history and culture of this area dating back thousands of years with Tewa puebloans, Navajo and Spanish conquistadors all influencing this magical land....and geologic formations dating back 300 million years.
O’KEEFFE HOME AND STUDIO TOUR IN ABIQUIU VILLAGE
The O'Keeffe Museum — the only museum in the United States named for a woman artist — is located in nearby Santa Fe. The museum owns and manages both of her homes in Abiquiu, and thousands of visitors are drawn to Abiquiú to visit her home and studio.
Visitors wanting to explore O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu should start at the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center. The Welcome Center houses a fabulous gift shop, a theater which shows videos explaining her life in Abiquiú and helpful O’Keeffe employees who are ready to answer questions. The Welcome Center is also the meeting spot for the tour of her home and studio.
To visit her home and studio – which exists today just as she left it..with her kitchen still stocked with spices and dishes, her bone and stone collection still decorating the home - you must make reservations for a tour in advance. The tours sell out quickly so book your tour just as soon as you solidify your dates and finalize your trip reservations. Tours run from March to November. On the day of your tour, check in at the O’Keeffe Welcome Center at least 30 minutes before your reservation time. This will allow time for viewing a short film about the Abiquiú home and studio and get ready to board the shuttle bus that will take you to her home up in the village. You cannot drive to her home – you will take a shuttle bus. A standard Home and Studio tour allows you to see how she lived, and worked. You will visit her gardens, patio, pantry, kitchen, and studio with an expert guide. Tours are limited to six people and run approximately 60 minutes. You can book tickets and reserve your tour at the O'Keeffe museum website.
O’KEEFFE TOURS AT GHOST RANCH
While you cannot visit O’Keeffe’s home at Ghost Ranch, there are other tours to choose from to get a glimpse into her life – the O’Keeffe Landscape Tour and the Walking in O”Keeffe’s Footsteps Tour.
The Georgia O'Keeffe Landscape Tour is available via bus or horseback riding, and is offered throughout the year. The tour is a narrated journey into the red hills and colorful cliffs that Georgia O’Keeffe painted while living at Ghost Ranch. The guide will show you reproductions of paintings close to the actual painting sites. The bus tour also takes by her Ghost Ranch house. The bus holds 14 passengers and there are three stops along the way where you can get out to spend time in the landscape.
Walking in O'Keeffe's Footsteps Tour is similar to the Landscape Tour, except you walk the land, arroyos and paths that she used while your guide shows you reproductions of her paintings close to the actual painting sites. The guide will also tell stories about her life at Ghost Ranch. You will walk past her home. Be prepared to walk for an hour and a half at an elevation of 6,400’ – you will want hiking shoes, water, sunscreen and probably a hat.
PLACES TO STAY – BECAUSE ABIQUIU IS MORE THAN A DAY TRIP!
When you visit Abiquiu to experience O’Keeffe, you will want to stay in the heart of O’Keeffe Country, on Abiquiu Lake – away from the hustle, bustle and crowds.
The Grand Hacienda Estate – the serenity of an adult-only atmosphere, along with gourmet breakfasts each morning, afternoon treats, private entrances, private patios, luxurious rooms, spa bathrooms, spectacular views, and so much more.
O'KEEFFE GIFT ITEMS
If you are staying at The Grand Hacienda, stop by the Mercado gift store to pick up wonderful O'Keeffe gift items, including note cards, post cards, books, paper dolls, playing cards, note pads, and more. If you are staying elsewhere, send an email to schedule a time to visit the Mercado.
BOOKS ABOUT ABIQUIU AND O’KEEFFE
To learn more, here are links to our favorite books about the area:
Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby, by Craig Varjabedian
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