Sunday, March 5, 2017

Georgia O’Keeffe and Measles

Did you know that around 1910 Georgia O’Keeffe became affected by a debilitating case of measles? The 23 year old artist was forced to move back to her hometown of Charlottesville Virginia in order to recover, and this viral infection changed her style.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935, The Brooklyn Museum Image credit: Wikipedia

When she was back in Virginia she lived with her mother and sisters, and after her successful recovery from measles remained there to take classes at the University of Virginia.  She studied the artist Arthur Wesley Dow, who held a philosophy of design that art should consist of filling space in a beautiful way.  His teachings introduced her to “a method of abstraction within decoration”, which not only inspired her to go back to teaching art, but also influenced some of her most successful paintings.

Why did she have to move after getting the measles?

Unvaccinated people over the age of twenty years who succumb to measles infection are at a much higher risk for complications. Additionally, the infection tends to be more severe and last longer.  Proper documentation of what symptoms she had remains lacking, but since her symptoms prompted her move from Chicago to Virginia, and the abandonment of her free-lance work, we can infer that she was fairly ill.  While there is no evidence that she suffered from encephalitis, she did have ocular inflammation, which prevented her from painting for a brief period of time.

It is well known that she suffered from age related macular degeneration, however, is it possible that complications from her measles infection may have exacerbated her vision problems?

Since she was young and the ocular inflammation was temporary, she probably made a full recovery.  The delicacy of shading and contrast characteristic of her early works was lost in her later works due to her age related macular degeneration, and she had to resort to the use of assistants in order to help her paint canvasses. However, her works immediately after her measles infection show no such loss of artistic control as evidence in her later works.

-Cynthia Taylor

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