Early Works, Exhibition, and Estrangement

Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe (American, 1889–1961), Toad Stool, c. 1932. Oil on canvas, 8 x 7 in. Private collection

As children in Wisconsin and later Virginia, Ida and Georgia O’Keeffe received the same art education. Ida O’Keeffe then taught drawing and “domestic arts” for six years (1911–17) before studying and working as a nurse (1918–25). In 1925, during a private assignment as a nurse in Connecticut, she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz with the news that she had taken up oil painting and confided that she had never taken lessons in the medium. This admission underscores how middle-class women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were trained only in drawing and watercolors; instruction in oil painting was generally reserved for male students. Her progress over the next two years impressed Stieglitz, a leading purveyor of modern American art. Georgia O’Keeffe included her sister’s work in a show she curated at the Opportunity Gallery in late 1927. Not wanting to be perceived as riding her sister’s coattails, Ida O’Keeffe dropped her last name and exhibited as Ida Ten Eyck.
In 1933, Ida O’Keeffe had her first major solo show at the Delphic Studios, a contemporary art gallery in New York City. The exhibition included paintings, prints, and drawings on a variety of subjects, including several paintings of lighthouses. Her younger sister Catherine O’Keeffe Klenert had also been featured in a solo exhibition at the same gallery two months earlier. Critics noticed the proliferation of O’Keeffes and declared them a “Family of Artists.” Georgia O’Keeffe, the eldest sister, responded to the heightened familial associations with anger. She demanded that her two younger sisters abandon art and cease to exhibit. Klenert obliged; Ida O’Keeffe did not. The once affectionate relationship between Georgia and Ida O’Keeffe was permanently altered into one of estrangement.