Eugene Savage Seminole painting at Cummer Museum

Eugene Savage Seminole painting Cyprus Colonnade (1952) at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has always intrigued me. Living in Florida with an interest in Indigenous history and conservation, I find the painting’s commentary about Native people being driven off their lands and out of their way of life by development amazingly forward-thinking for a picture from the 1950s.

More surprising than the painting’s date was that Eugene Savage was the dean Fine Arts at Yale University when he first visited Florida in 1935 and became inspired by the Seminole Indians and Everglades landscape he toured. If ever there was a colonial, patriarchal, extraction economy, private property, Manifest Destiney, wealth-over-people, “vanishing race” abiding institution, it would be Yale University. Everything the haughty Ivy League schools seem to have been built on and stand for contrasts the Indigenous way of life. Take the Bush family as an example.

By 1935, the Indian Wars long over, Native people pushed onto reservations, Indian boarding schools across the country near their peak and Indigenous citizens and culture on the brink, a Yalie coming to Florida and sympathizing with the plight of the Seminole is astonishing. Yet one more example of how artists are the nation’s best historians. The concerns expressed in this painting regarding Native land rights and sovereignty – as well as environmental conservation – in the face of white people’s development and capitalism are flash points in the current events 70 years hence.

Eugene Savage (no relation to Jacksonville born artist and pride of the Cummer collection Augusta Savage) bucked popular notions of elite whites at the time – now? – in depicting the Seminole as a beautiful, peaceful, surviving people increasingly threatened by encroachment from development and tourism. Also, unlike other portrayals of Native people in the mid-to-late 19th century and early-to-mid 20th century – including a famed example from the Cummer’s collection – Savage’s depiction of a Seminole Indian is a historically accurate one.

White artists depicting Native people has always been problematic for any number of reasons from their outright racism in some cases, to their promotion of harmful myths, to a willful or unintended cultural appropriation. That’s not to say it can’t be done, however, and having seen countless white artists successfully and unsuccessfully paint, sculpt and photograph Native people, I find Savage’s Seminole paintings astute – but that’s my personal opinion as a white man. I’d be open to changing that opinion were I shown a contrary way of looking at this picture through a Native perspective.

The Eugene Savage Collection

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has an extensive holding of Savage’s artwork. The museum purchased the Eugene Savage Collection containing 113 paintings, watercolors, charcoals and sketches (1934 – 1952) by Savage in 2007. His artworks not only document Seminole traditions that were threatened by modern development of the Everglades, but are also important artistically in their own right, reminiscent of Surrealist dreamscapes and Art Deco sensibilities. In 2011, the Museum purchased a selection of archival materials to support the collection and staged a major exhibition of the works.

In researching Savage and his Seminole paintings, I discovered they weren’t the only Native people he prominently painted, another story for another day.

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