Florida inspired art in the Cummer Museum permanent collection

The best Florida art museums balance serving their local communities with housing works and exhibitions from the greatest artists in history around the world. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens does this. It has one major advantage in doing so – make that two. A pair of brilliant artists with work in its collection, Augusta Savage and Mildred Thompson, are both from Jacksonville.

Savage and Thompson allow the museum two kill two birds with one stone in displaying the work of a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Savage, as well as a brilliant later-generation Abstract Expressionist, Thompson. Both movements were born in New York, evolved to create a global impact, and have a connection to Jacksonville.

How else does the Cummer Museum tell Florida stories along with its encyclopedic collection of artwork dating back to antiquity, through the Renaissance and Baroque eras into the present day? The most prominent, and problematic, example comes from Thomas Moran with his painting Ponce de León in Florida (1877-1878). In this in enormous, wall-filling painting, Moran depicts a meeting between Spanish explorer/colonizer Ponce de Leon and Florida’s indigenous people. That’s the first problem.

Thomas Moran, Ponce de Leon in Florida, 1877-1878, detail Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Thomas Moran, Ponce de Leon in Florida, 1877-1878, detail Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Indigenous people are now and were then diverse and unique between the various regions in Florida they inhabited. Native people and cultures are not a monolith. They don’t universally share dress or origin stories or spiritual practices, but in Moran‘s white supremacist mind, an accurate depiction of the native people meeting de Leon didn’t really matter. Promulgating the horrific racist stereotype, “they all look the same,” this painting’s portrayal of native people in Florida isn’t an accurate representation of what the Indigenous people de Leon would have encountered looked like. The rendition becomes even worse in the hands of this legendary painter because the native Floridians he depicts are actually wearing Western Indigenous regalia such as headdresses. These are the indigenous people Moran was more familiar with from his time spent in Utah, Arizona and Wyoming for which his career is best known.

Think about it for a minute, with Florida’s lush greenery, dense tree canopy and thick under brush, how could anyone wear the sort of giant headdress and move through the forest the way the “chief” in Moran‘s picture does? It’s absurd. It’s bigoted. It’s ignorant.

It’s Thomas Moran, one of America’s most celebrated landscape painters. That says a lot about a lot.

The benevolent, peaceful nature of the encounter also belies the brutal, abusive and hostile actions de Leon and successive colonizers took upon the native population.

Another key piece from the Cummer’s permanent collection related to Florida’s Indigenous population is Eugene Savage’s Cypress Colonnade (1952). In this painting, for which the museum also has studies, a Seminole woman poles a canoe through the Everglades. In the middle ground, what appears to be a cloud of machinery exhaust smoke hints at the effects of the state’s increasing development.

Eugene Savage, no relation to Augusta Savage, was the dean of the Fine Arts program at Yale University when he first visited Florida in 1935 and became inspired by the Seminole Indians and Everglades landscape he toured. He would visit numerous times over the succeeding decades.

Perhaps my favorite Florida piece in the Cummer’s collection is Winslow Homer‘s The White Rowboat, St. John’s River (1890). I adore this delicate watercolor of the river which serves as the backyard of the Cummer museum painted with the delicacy of the Maine and New England scenes for which homer became so famous.

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