Mentoring Letters by Georgia O’Keeffe Come to Auction With Bonhams

Liz Catalano
Published on

This month, Bonhams will offer a collection of letters written by Georgia O’Keeffe to a younger woman artist. For nearly a decade, O’Keeffe offered practical suggestions, financial assistance, and emotional support to her recipient. The letters also fit into O’Keeffe’s long history of mentorship. Auction Daily looks back at O’Keeffe’s legacy before the timed event.

Collection of letters from Georgia O’Keeffe to Mym Tuma (Marilyn Thuma) (1964 - 1973). Image from Bonhams.
Collection of letters from Georgia O’Keeffe to Mym Tuma (Marilyn Thuma) (1964 – 1973). Image from Bonhams.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s History of Mentorship

Before she could assist up-and-coming artists of the next generation, Georgia O’Keeffe was a benefactor of traditional mentorships. Arthur Wesley Dow helped evolve O’Keeffe’s understanding of art while she studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College. This was pivotal in her movement toward Modernism. Dow particularly encouraged O’Keeffe to embrace personal narratives in abstract works. O’Keeffe also received guidance from Alfred Stieglitz, her photographer, promoter, and lover. 

Georgia O’Keeffe’s fame later outshone both Dow and Steiglitz. Unlike some of her contemporaries, O’Keeffe saw her hard work pay off during her lifetime. She was very conscious of her responsibility to share success with others. O’Keeffe dutifully mentored other leading artists of the late 20th century while at the height of her career. 

Left: Yayoi Kusama with an Infinity Net painting in 1961; image from Tate/ ©️ Yayoi Kusama. Right: A letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Yayoi Kusama, 1955; image courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.
Left: Yayoi Kusama with an Infinity Net painting in 1961; image from Tate/ ©️ Yayoi Kusama. Right: A letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Yayoi Kusama, 1955; image courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Yayoi Kusama and Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe’s friendship with Yayoi Kusama is well-documented. It began in 1955 when Kusama wrote to the more seasoned artist for advice. Kusama was not yet an internationally-renowned painter of polka dots. On a whim, she sought validation from one of the most successful women artists in the world. To Kusama’s surprise, O’Keeffe wrote back. She encouraged Kusama to move to New York and pursue art opportunities with a vengeance. 

Kusama followed O’Keeffe’s advice, to great success. The two artists maintained a professional relationship over the next several decades. They exchanged several letters and had at least one brief meeting in New York. Throughout their correspondence, O’Keeffe and Kusama maintained mutual respect without competitiveness.

“Of all the many remarkable people I have known in my life, the first I must mention is Georgia O’Keeffe… She was my first and greatest benefactor; it was because of her that I was able to go to the USA and begin my artistic career in earnest,” Kusama told Tate in 2019.

Left: Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Mym Tuma; image from Bonhams. Right: Georgia O’Keeffe portrait by Ralph Looney, 1966; image from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/ ©️ Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Left: Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Mym Tuma; image from Bonhams. Right: Georgia O’Keeffe portrait by Ralph Looney, 1966; image from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/ ©️ Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Mym Tuma and Georgia O’Keeffe

Mym Tuma was also among O’Keeffe’s mentees. She went by Marilyn Thuma in her early years and through her friendship with O’Keeffe. Tuma often captures sea shells, coastal forms, and sprouting seeds in her works. Their deep colors and evocative lines illustrate O’Keeffe’s lasting influence. 

Tuma approached O’Keeffe shortly after completing graduate school. Despite a 50-year age gap, Tuma sought help in launching her work and making connections. O’Keeffe quickly responded, offering a visit to her New Mexico studio. Tuma’s resulting trip prompted nearly a decade of letters between the artists. 

“The openness and directness of my untutored approach so astonished O’Keeffe that she took me under her wing and she became a patron,” Tuma later recalled in an interview with The Southampton Press. “O’Keeffe found a kinship with my work and thought it was honest and direct and wanted to own it.” 

18 of O’Keeffe’s letters to Tuma will come to auction this March. The available archive tracks the waxing and waning of their friendship from 1964 through 1973. Interested collectors will find everything from practical advice to personal anecdotes in the collection. The letters carry a presale estimate of USD 10,000 to $15,000. 

Ram’s head from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch. Image from Bonhams.
Ram’s head from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch. Image from Bonhams.

Collectors can also consider the skull of a Rocky Mountain bighorn ram in the upcoming auction. Georgia O’Keeffe gave the piece to Tuma after noticing the younger artist’s admiration. While Tuma declined O’Keeffe’s offer of a bullet-ridden skull, she accepted this one as a memento. It reportedly hung above O’Keeffe’s gate for 30 years. The skull has an auction estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. 

Bidding begins on Georgia O’Keeffe’s collection of letters to Mym Tuma and the ram’s head decoration on March 22nd, 2021, and closes on March 30th. Visit Bonhams for more information or to place a bid. 

Interested in more art world news? Auction Daily recently explored modern art in Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale.