Skip to main content

Fifth Avenue and the High Road to Taos: Mabel Dodge, Georgia O'Keeffe, and New York City

Revised from a series of posts about Mabel Dodge and Georgia O'Keeffe's intertwined lives in New York and New Mexico, originally published on this site in 2008. 

I. Introduction

Mabel Dodge (1879-1962), the wealthy heiress at 23 Fifth Avenue, and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the famous artist whose first exhibit was held at 291 Fifth Avenue, could have lived out the rest of their lives in New York. In 1917 Dodge married painter Maurice Sterne and had her eye on a new apartment at 23 Washington Square North. In April of 1917 Alfred Stieglitz exhibited a series of O'Keeffe's watercolors at his 291 gallery, and soon the two would be living together. They married in 1924.

After a series of nervous ailments, Dodge decided her future was in the west. In December 1917 she moved to Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their friend, Elsie Clews Parsons. Twelve years later, in the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with her friend, Beck Strand. The two stayed at Mabel's ranch. Mabel had divorced Sterne and married Tony Luhan, a Native American. For O'Keeffe, the visit presented a new palette, not just for her art but for her life. Upon returning to New York her art career blossomed (so to speak), but in 1932 and 1933 she also suffered from bouts of psychoneurosis. In 1934, still recuperating, she returned to New Mexico and found her ranch.

(left) Mabel Dodge Luhan. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934, and (right) Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1950.


II. Ladies of the Canyon: Mabel Dodge and Georgia O'Keeffe


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, looking south

Mabel Dodge

Mabel Dodge, for four years during the 1910s, occupied an elegant apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 9th Street, a space she enveloped in white. She painted the woodwork white, papered the walls white, and she covered the windows and floors with white curtains and white rugs. She served white wine at lunch, and she often wore white dresses. She created a place where her identity could take shape, and she filled the space with other people who had already defined themselves - socialists, painters, Bolsheviks, newspaper columnists, poets and anarchists, who could give her a new sense of self against all that white.

After repainting her apartment, she suffered an apparent nervous collapse, if not a clinical breakdown. She heard ghosts in the telephone receiver, and she saw the word "EVIL" appear to her in the form of a giant blue-grey smile. She could be original - the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden was her idea, or she could be petty and petulant, strung out on a guy like John Reed. She wouldn't be happy until the 1920s, when she had moved to New Mexico and where all the adobe houses were painted white.

Georgia O'Keeffe

"One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt."

"Now and then when I get an idea for a picture, I think, how ordinary. Why paint that old rock? Why not go for a walk instead? But then I realize that to someone else it may not seem so ordinary."

- quotes by Georgia O'Keeffe

In 1925, Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz moved into the Shelton Hotel at Lexington and 49th Street (now the New York Marriott East Side) and lived there for 12 years. Their apartment afforded excellent views of Midtown and a window onto the dazzling skyscraper race of the 1920s. O'Keeffe had already started painting her signature flowers, but she sketched, drew, and painted the buildings out her window, ones with interesting shapes. She made approximately forty works of buildings in the New York skyline, including City Night, 1926, Shelton Hotel, N.Y. No.1, 1926, Shelton with Sunspots, 1926, Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, and New York Night, 1928-1929.

By 1929 O'Keeffe grew disillusioned with her marriage and with New York. She welcomed the invitation to spend the summer at Mabel Dodge Luhan's home in Taos.

By the early 1910s, the proliferation of tall New York buildings along Fifth Avenue and other thoroughfares cast the streets in darkness, and it grew common to refer to these places as "canyons." By 1920, during the early days of the building boom, new landowners tore down Mabel Dodge's house at 23 Fifth Avenue and the 291 Fifth Avenue building that housed Stieglitz's gallery and replaced them with larger buildings in the modern style.

O'Keeffe was one of many fellow New York artist making the pilgrimage to New Mexico. John Sloan visited Santa Fe in 1919, the same year as Mabel Dodge made her move, and he bought a house there in 1920. He spent four months of every year in Santa Fe from 1920 to 1950. Sloan learned of the place from his pioneering mentor, Robert Henri, who had visited in 1916 an 1917. It was a craze really, one that also attracted Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Stuart Davis. American modernism, with its taste for the exotic, couldn't do without the New Mexican landscape and its people.


III. Gertrude Stein, The Big Bear Buddha of Bryant Park


"In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history." - from SPECULATIONS, OR POST-IMPRESSIONS IN PROSE by Mabel Dodge (Arts and Decoration, March, 1913). Dodge's essay on the modernist, experimental writing of Gertrude Stein helped popularize the author in the United States. The essay was published and distributed at the 1913 Armory Show, the landmark blockbuster exhibition that introduced European modernism to New York.

Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge had frequent misunderstandings and did not always get along. At one point Dodge asked Gertrude's brother, Leo, why Gertrude seemed so distant, and according to Dodge, "he laughed and said because there was a doubt in her mind about who was the bear and who was leading the bear!" (Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1936.)

Image: Sculpture of Gertrude Stein, Bryant Park. On the right, behind Stein's left shoulder, is the base of the Radiator Building, the subject of one of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. The sculpture is a casting based on a 1923 model made in Paris by Jo Davidson (1883-1952).


IV. Mabel Dodge Sees Art By "A Schoolteacher Out West"



Flashback: In the Fall of 1915 Georgia O'Keeffe was teaching at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina where she started working on a series of charcoal drawings. She tried out new techniques she had learned from her NY teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, especially a new way to treat light and dark, and the resulting work was like nothing she had done before. She sent some of these drawings to her close art school friend, Anita Pollitzer, who in turn showed them to Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 Gallery on January 1, 1916.

Every artist could use an Anita Pollitzer. The daughter of a wealthy Charleston, South Carolina family, Pollitzer could turn on the Southern charm. A burgeoning artist in her youth, she later made a name for herself as a suffragette and activist for the National Women's Party. Showing charcoal drawings of an unknown artist friend to someone as established as Stieglitz takes a great deal of panache.

Stieglitz loved the drawings and exhibited them without O'Keeffe's knowledge. She was angered that he did not ask her consent, but after talking it over with him, she agreed to let him exhibit her work. In August of 1916 she moved to Canyon, Texas to teach at West Texas State Normal College.

Mabel Dodge didn't often leave her place at 23 Fifth Avenue, but the 291 Gallery, a mile or so up the avenue, was "one of the few places where I went." One day in 1916 she met painter Marsden Hartley at the gallery, and Stieglitz "showed us some curious black and white drawings by a schoolteacher out west. Presently he hung them on the walls...This was the first work we saw of Georgia O'Keeffe." (Movers and Shakers)

Image: Georgia O'Keeffe, Drawing No. 13, 1915. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.


V. The Building that Would Glow at Night: Raymond Hood, Georgia O'Keeffe, and the American Radiator Building


Designed by Raymond Hood, the American Radiator Building of 1924 fit the bill of the clients - it was massive, solid, and it would glow at night. While Hood wanted the building to look like a cathedral, he knew that the many window openings would overly lighten the heaviness. He solved the problem by making the facade black. He didn't want lights turned on in the building after dark but directed the upper floors to be illuminated with floodlights.

O'Keeffe not only painted the Radiator Building at night but with all the windows illuminated. The painting is one of several O'Keeffe made in the mid 1920s in response to the changing New York skyline. At the time she and Alfred Stieglitz lived on the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, and O'Keeffe frequently walked near the new building.

Her painting of the Radiator from 1927 (the same year as Fritz Lang's Metropolis, tellingly) is remarkable for its color and for the depiction of the artificial light of the city night - the purple and blue tints of floodlights and the fluorescent whites of the office towers. There's a touch of warm incandescent light in windows here and there. The stylized smoky steam arising from the building at the right echoes the flipped curved cornices of the Radiator's top floors. It's pure theater.

After Stieglitz died in 1946, his personal art collection of some 1,000 works was divided up among six museums. One benefactor was Fisk University in Nashville, a university Carl Van Vechten suggested to O'Keeffe. Among the artworks in the bequest was O'Keeffe's painting, Radiator Building–Night, New York. For a couple of years, the cash-strapped university has tried to sell the painting, then valued around $20 million, and at one point worked out a co-ownership deal with a new Walton-backed museum in Arkansas. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico attempted to legally block the agreement, and the matter went to court. The matter has been tied up in courts for the past four years.

Images: (l) photo by Walking Off the Big Apple, January 2008. and Georgia O'Keeffe. Radiator Building–Night, New York. 1927.


VI. Georgia O'Keeffe's Long Road Home

When Mabel Dodge invited Georgia O'Keeffe to spend the summer with her in Taos in 1929, O'Keeffe accepted the invitation without first consulting her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a dominating spouse. She spent the summer there without him anyway, awakening to the possibility she had found a new place that seemed like home.
"She wrote to Henry McBride from Taos in 1929, 'You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here-and finally feeling in the right place again-I feel like myself-and I like it- . . . Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields-then the sage brush and beyond-a most perfect mountain-it makes me feel like flying-and I don't care what becomes of art.' - Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters by Jack Cowart and Juan Hamilton (New York Graphic Society, 1990)

Stieglitz was an aging New Yorker, embedded in the cultural life of the city, and far-away New Mexico was a place best left to his wife. In February of 1930 he exhibited her New Mexico-inspired paintings at An American Place at 509 Madison Avenue, his third and final gallery in New York. The gallery presented O'Keeffe's New Mexico paintings every year until the gallery's closing in 1950.

Any artist would have relished O'Keeffe's life - time alone in New Mexico to paint a serious body of work as well as a successful artist-gallerist spouse back in New York to exhibit them on Madison Avenue every year. In addition, the two often enjoyed time at the expansive Stieglitz estate up on Lake George. But...

Enter Radio City Music Hall (1260 Avenue of the Americas). In the spring of 1932 O'Keeffe accepted a $1500 commission to paint a mural on the walls of the Ladies Powder Room. Wanting to paint something big, she accepted the challenge over her husband's objections. By October, after spending the summer in Canada, she grew frustrated with some technical difficulties with the mural and abandoned the project. In early 1933 she became ill and was admitted to Doctor's Hospital for psychoneurosis, a condition often brought on by acute stress.

Meanwhile, Stieglitz, who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe, had started a relationship with a young married woman, Dorothy Norman, his gallery manager, an artist, arts patron and a proponent of the photographic arts. He started taking photos of her, the same sort of sensational erotic images he made of O'Keeffe early in their marriage. The two spent a lot of time in the darkroom together. All this while his wife is sick. O'Keeffe knew what was going on.

O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934, first staying at Ghost Ranch seventy miles west of Taos, and until Stieglitz's death she returned there most every summer. In 1936 she and Stieglitz moved from the Shelton Hotel to a penthouse apartment at 405 East 54th St., a place nearer Stieglitz's gallery. In 1942 they moved to a small apartment at 59 East 54th St., even closer. During the summer of 1945 she bought an adobe house on three acres in Abiquiu. In 1946, Stieglitz, after a massive stroke, died in New York at the age of 82.

After spending a couple of years in New York, consumed with settling the Stieglitz estate, O'Keeffe permanently moved to New Mexico in 1949, dividing her time between Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. She had spent thirty years going back and forth from her home in the west to an apartment in midtown Manhattan, and she didn't have to do that anymore. She died March 6, 1986 in Santa Fe at the age of 98.

Image: interior, New York Marriott Hotel East Side (formerly the Shelton Hotel), 525 Lexington Avenue at 49th St.

Map of places mentioned in this post -


VII. Coda

Years ago, in the plaza of Taos, New Mexico, my mother and I struck up a conversation with a guy who ran a sandwich stand. He told us he was a New Yorker, a former business executive who decided on a whim one day to move out west. While stuck in traffic for hours on the Long Island Expressway, he decided to go home, collect the wife and children, and leave New York for good. He said he never regretted the decision, and he was happy selling sandwiches on the Taos plaza.

New York can be beautiful, but not in the same way that New Mexico can be beautiful. I think New Mexico will continue to hypnotize those of us who live back east. When I grow weary of the city, I sit on my terrace and look west. I imagine the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the setting red-orange sun and cow's skulls with white calico roses descending over the azure sky. I think then, "What Ghost Ranch waits for me?"









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o