O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887 in a farmhouse on a large dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her parents Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida Totto O’Keeffe were dairy farmers. Ida Totto O’Keeffe’s father, George, for whom Georgia was named, was a Hungarian immigrant. Through her parents, she was also related to Edward Fuller, one of the passengers on the Mayflower and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. O’Keeffe’s maternal connection was descended from Edward Fuller’s son Matthew.
She was the first girl and the second of seven O’Keeffe children. She attended Town Hall School in Wisconsin and received art instruction from local watercolorist, Sara Mann. She attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, Wisconsin as a boarder between 1901 and 1902. In fall 1902 the O’Keeffes moved from Wisconsin to Williamsburg, Virginia. Georgia stayed in Wisconsin with her aunt and attended Madison High School, and joined her family in Williamsburg in 1903. She completed high school as a boarder at Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia (now Chatham Hall), graduating in 1905.
Education for women was a family tradition. Georgia’s mother Ida had been educated in the East. All the daughters but one became professional women, attesting to her influence on them.
In 1905, O’Keeffe enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1907 she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied with William Merritt Chase. In 1908, she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting mona shehab (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot). Her prize was a scholarship to attend the League’s outdoor summer school at Lake George, New York. While in the city in 1908, O’Keeffe had attended an exhibition of Rodin’s watercolors at the 291, owned by her future husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
In the fall of 1908, discouraged with her work, O’Keeffe did not return to the League but moved to Chicago and found work as a commercial artist. During this period Georgia did not pick up a brush, and she said that the smell of turpentine made her sick. She became an elementary school art teacher near Amarillo, Texas. She was inspired to paint again in 1912, when she attended a class at the University of Virginia Summer School, where she was introduced to the innovative ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow by Alon Bement. Dow’s teachings encouraged artists to express themselves through harmonious compositions and contrasts of light and dark. Dow’s teaching strongly influenced O’Keeffe’s thinking about the process of making art. She served as a Teaching Assistant to Bement for several years, before returning to Texas to teach in the art department of the fledgling West Texas State Normal College.