YORK, Maine — Long Sands Beach is a gentle three-mile curve of soft taupe that unfurls, depending on the tide, as a slim ribbon crowded against the seawall or as a vast, sea-slicked plain, the water a football field’s length away. Maybe that changeability, that extreme, is what drew Georgia O’Keeffe here for the first time 100 years ago this spring, a solitary escape from the bustle and complications of a dizzying New York art scene. More likely, it was that vastness, the open sea unbound from Maine’s craggy coastline, pummeled by waves and made famous years before by the state’s resident artist-hermit, Winslow Homer. On Long Sands, O’Keeffe could live and work unfettered even by landscape, where the rocky shore softened and fell flat along the water, unbroken for miles. Here, if she wanted it to be so, there was only sand, sea, and sky.
In 1920, O’Keeffe was suddenly much in need of simplification. She’d been a student at Columbia University’s Teachers College between 1914 and 1916, coming and going from New York to teach art in Texas and South Carolina in between. At Columbia College, in South Carolina, she made a series of abstract charcoal drawings in 1915, which she sent to a classmate in New York a year later. The friend, maybe sensing something — sensuous, enigmatic, little whispers on paper — took them to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose 291 Gallery had become an incubator of the burgeoning American Modern Art avant-garde. Stieglitz loved them so much he made a show of them without even telling O’Keeffe — an act that prompted her to make the trek from West Texas to confront him.
She arrived in May 1917, just as the show was ending, walking through the door as her works were being packed away. Stieglitz, repentant, rehung the entire show just for her; entranced as she perused, he photographed her for the first of what would be thousands of times. He convinced her to stay, to throw herself fully into her work. She was absorbed in his circle, a who’s who of American modernism — Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand, John Marin, and Charles Demuth. He became her mentor, then her lover; a year later, the married Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were carrying on an open affair.
In the flurry her life had become by 1920, anywhere might have felt like refuge. Her success had come quickly — too quickly, perhaps, for her comfort. The whirlwind of Stieglitz’s social agenda was exhausting. Perhaps their thoroughly modern arrangement was, too — Stieglitz separated from his wife of 25 years and had been living with O’Keeffe since 1918. Of anywhere in the world, O’Keeffe chose here, a stretch of Maine beach less picturesque than desolate, a span of seaboard unremarkable for anything but the sea.
More obvious might have been Old Orchard Beach, 30 miles to the north, its quaint village and Victorian-era pier already a vacationer’s landmark. Beyond it, the coast again turns to rock, the waves shattered to mist — Homer’s Maine, and for legions of painters that followed him, a dream.
But nothing about O’Keeffe was obvious. From nearby York Harbor, a postcard-perfect small crescent of beach walled by rocky points, Long Sands is a short drive north and a world away. It unfurls dully, a broad gape of coast, charmless and disheveled, the gaps between old motels and trailer parks filled with weather-beaten cottages, most of them with “summer rental” signs hanging in the window. At its northern end, houses cluster tightly on the jagged peninsula of Concordville, the Nubble Lighthouse just off its rocky point.
Beyond it is Short Sands Beach, where you’ll find a cluster of surf shops and cafes and an old-time arcade with the words “FUN O RAMA” nailed to its façade. But O’Keeffe wasn’t looking for any of those things. She was looking for purity, experience boiled down by the essence of things. Drop down from the promenade to the hard-packed beach, and Long Sands provides just that. Look due east, over the Atlantic, and everything else slips away. Mounds of yellow-green seaweed litter the beach from end to end, rank with salty rot. The sea, in its rhythm, rumbles along, indifferent to time as we know it — months, years, centuries.
With your feet on the wet sand, it’s not hard to walk in her footsteps, to imagine her daily routine 100 years ago. In the daytime, with fog lifting over the water, she would collect seaweed and shells to take back to her guest house, where she set them in dishes of water to liven their colors. On that first trip, she made watercolors and pastels, intricate little things of the tangles of seaweed, closely observed. They’re dazzling — alive with color and detail, little bundles of unfettered pleasure, like they’re growing before your eyes. One of them, “Abstraction, Seaweed and Water,” seems a sign of things to come, its symmetrical unfolding a foreshadow of her flowers. More than the others, it looks like an O’Keeffe.
As the tides shifted, she would marvel at the heaviness of the water, its inexhaustible churn. She wrote to Stieglitz one spring of “the sort of sea that Homer tried to paint — but that just can’t be done.” Watching the tide roll in, the beach swallowed foot by foot by the advancing sea, she wrote to him of “tremendous waves rolling over rocks that make New York seem like an idiot’s toy.” She was moved by the sheer vastness — sky for days, a horizon without end. “It’s the first real thrill I’ve had that compares favorably with Texas,” a beloved place, one that made her feel just as small. “I just almost died.”
That was in 1922; her solitary springtime sojourns to Maine were by then a regular thing. On that trip, she captured the joyful thundering of the sea with “Wave,” a pastel drawing of emerald water drawn up in curl, breaking into a froth. She would paint the water again and again, her trips more and more needed as the years wore on. The 1920s were a time of growth and tumult for O’Keeffe. She began the flower paintings that, for better or worse, made her famous, and quickly. She and Stieglitz married, in 1924, after he finally divorced his wife, but his philandering never stopped. Lake George, their mutual retreat in upstate New York, was soured by it. At the lake, Stieglitz shamelessly flirted with O’Keeffe’s younger sister, Ida, driving a rift between the siblings that never healed.
At Long Sands in 1926, O’Keeffe painted “Blue Wave Maine,” cool and dreamy with its wisp of sea foam in the foreground, a pinkening sky at the horizon. It feels chilly, remote. Her career was advancing, but her personal life was becoming more complicated. Stieglitz was a brilliant artist, but considerably less skilled as a husband; that much was already clear. By 1927, he was carrying on an open affair with Dorothy Norman, an heiress to the Sears Roebuck fortune, to O’Keeffe’s obvious dismay.
Two years later, O’Keeffe discovered New Mexico — a place even more vast and solitary than Long Sands, the high desert yielding light and color that sustained her for the rest of her life. That’s when she made her escape, spending months every year apart from the man she needed but couldn’t trust. In 1928, on her last trip to Maine, she made her darkest work there: “Wave, Night.” Everything about it feels disconsolate — an enveloping, creeping blackness swallowing everything in sight. Look closely, though, and you’ll see a pinprick of light hovering above the horizon — an offshore lighthouse and a beacon of another sort, I like to think. On those cool spring days of solitude on that long crescent of sand, O’Keeffe saw not just sea and beach and sky. She saw the way forward, to the life of solitary self-reliance she would inevitably lead.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.