Eclectic Ecology: Virtual Tour

Florida conjures visions of a lush tropical paradise, with vast natural resources and endless opportunities for those most daring to try. The cultural landscape, however, is a combination of nature and humanity; the landscape, from white sand beaches to murky swamps, provides the backbone; the inhabitants provide the culture. Florida’s cultural landscape is light, bright, expansive, and ripe with potential, but also wild, untamed, ambiguous, and obscure.

Artists across the centuries have explored the cultural landscape’s density of vegetation, people, and mystery – begging the viewer to question what is lurking beneath the literal and figurative shadows. Since Jacques le Moyne, the first European artist known to have visited Florida, arrived in 1564, artists have wrestled with deciding how to capture this dichotomy in their depictions of the land we call home. Through these works of art, explore how Florida and man coexist, whether in harmony or imbalance.

“[Florida] is a land of swamps, of quagmire, of frogs and alligators and mosquitos! No man would immigrate into Florida no, not from hell itself!” – US Rep. John Randolph of Virginia, speaking in 1821 against the US acquiring Florida from Spain

 

Thomas Moran (American, 1837 – 1926), Ponce de León in Florida, 1877 – 1878, oil on canvas, Acquired for the people of Florida by The Frederick H. Schultz Family and Barnett Banks, Inc.  Additional funds provided by the Cummer Council, AP.1996.2.1.

 

The Native Americans who inhabited the northeast corner of Florida at the time Europeans arrived were the Timucua, a name also used for the language they spoke. In 1650, more than 100 years following the arrival of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León (c. 1474 – 1521), the estimated population of Timucua speakers was thought to be 13,500.
 
Artist Thomas Moran was familiar with the western Plains Indians and depicted them in the painting instead of the distinctly different Timucuan people. Moran’s vision of history is further romanticized – encounters between the Timucua and Spanish were notoriously hostile. However, his depiction of the Florida landscape is accurate in his rendering of palms, palmettos, and live oaks covered in Spanish moss and indigenous vines.

 

“My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned 60 and that’s just the law.” – Jerry Seinfeld

Mary Williamson (American, b. 1954), 210 West, c. 1998, pencil on paper, Museum Purchase, AP.2000.2.1

 

Artist Mary Williamson uses Florida’s landscape as her muse – “with all its lush tropical plants, abundant sunshine, diverse wildlife and dramatic weather changes,” she says. Here, she examines the aftermath of a hurricane and how those intense weather events alter the landscape.

"Florida’s landscapes with all its lush tropical plants, abundant sunshine, diverse wildlife and dramatic weather changes is my muse." - Mary Williamson

Amer Kobašlija, (Bosnian American), Lowe’s Tubes, 2018, oil on Mylar mounted on panel, Courtesy of the Artist, L.2019.11.1.

 

Florida’s landscape bears the imprint of many forces, from natural events like hurricanes and erosion to the impacts of development and tourism. The beauty and the sprawl of Florida are recurring themes in Amer Kobašlija’s work. He immigrated to the United States from Bosnia in 1997, settling in Jacksonville, and says:

“[Lowe’s Tubes is] a place where families go on weekends to rent these inflatables and then float down the Ichetucknee River. I was struck by the power of that image and couldn’t help but wonder about these plastic objects hanging from the tree, replacing fruits or flowers – as if the tree was resurrecting itself, still evolving. All that plastic as legacy of our time for our children to inherit. That was the extent of my metaphor. But when I showed the preliminary study to a friend, she said how it made her think of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. My friend is African-American. She made the connection based on the history of her family and race. I started obsessing with this image and kept going back to the actual site, looking at it and painting it under different light conditions.”

“Wade tried to imagine Florida before the advent of man, but couldn't. The landscape seemed too thoroughly colonized -- the trailers, factory outlets, and cocktail shacks of the world below. He decided that if human beings took over the moon, they'd probably just turn it into Florida.”―  Canadian author and journalist Douglas Coupland

 

Theodor de Bry (Franco-Flemish 1528 – 1598), after Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533 – c. 1588), Hunting Alligators, 1591, Engraving, Museum purchase in honor of Congressman Charles E. Bennett, AP.2002.1.3.

 

The Timucua, the inhabitants of the north Florida region since 3000 BCE, once numbered 200,000 – 300,000. They faced multiple encounters with foreigners: first, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who arrived in 1513, then Franciscan missionaries, followed by the English in the early 1700s. As a result, most of the Timucua perished or were assimilated into the Seminole tribe in the Everglades. The last known Timucua person, Juan Alonso Cabale, died in Cuba in 1767.

The most comprehensive record of the Timucua comes from French explorers. In 1564, under the guidance of René Laudonnière, they attempted to establish a colony at Fort Caroline, and an illustrated account of that event was chronicled in the volume A Brief History of Those Things Which Befell the French in Florida (1591). Despite many errors that are visible to historians, this publication is considered to be an important text in the history of exploration. According to the text, the Timucua would plunge a pointed tree trunk, 10 to 12 feet long, into an alligator’s open mouth, flip it onto its back, and butcher it. The text goes on to say, “These animals trouble them so much that they have to keep a watch against them at night and sometimes even in the day, as if they were guarding against some dreadful enemy.”

“The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.” – Carl Hiaasen

Herman Herzog (German, 1832 – 1932), Figure in a River Landscape, c. 1910, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. C. Herman Terry, AG.1987.11.1.

 

A native of the German city of Bremen, Herman Herzog entered the Düsseldorf Academy when he was 17 years old. The young artist was attracted to landscape compositions and traveled widely in pursuit of inspiration. During the 1860s, he settled in Philadelphia but continued to travel, including regular visits to his son’s home in Gainesville. The lush vegetation between the Suwannee and Homossassa Rivers appealed to his taste for quiet drama, and Herzog created more than 250 Florida views. This painted record of unspoiled Florida was created for Herzog’s appreciation alone without any audience in mind. Financial success allowed the artist to cease selling his paintings later in life, resulting in a studio collection of nearly 1,000 works at the time of his death.

“The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.” – Marjorie Stoneman Douglas

Eugene Savage (American, 1883 – 1978), Lakes Without Water, 1935, oil on canvas adhered to aluminum on wood, Purchased with funds from the Mae W. Schultz Charitable Lead Trust, AP.2007.2.3.

 

The Seminoles are not indigenous to Florida. They are the descendants of the Creek confederacy who were first pushed into the peninsula by European colonists. Later, the tribe retreated south to the Everglades in response to legislation that called for the removal of Native Americas from the state.

While the North American Indian was a popular subject with American artists, the isolation and purposeful reticence of the Seminoles made them an elusive subject. However, Florida’s land boom and growing tourist industry in the 1920s brought national attention to the tribe. Efforts to protect Seminole culture collided with environmentalist efforts to preserve the Everglades as a national park. In this context, Eugene Savage dedicated himself to representing the plight of tribe. Here, the sun on the horizon symbolizes the dawn of urban progress as well as the twilight of Seminole culture.

“I like Florida. Everything is in the 80’s. The temperature, the ages and the IQ’s.” – George Carlin

Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819  –  1904), The St. Johns River, c. 1890s, oil on canvas, Purchased with funds from Membership Contributions, AP.1966.29.1.

 

Martin Johnson Heade was a committed proponent of ecological conservation, and his paintings reflected this passion. Born in Pennsylvania in the same year Spain ceded Florida to the United States on paper, Heade relocated to the state in 1883. Many of his paintings were purchased by developer Henry Flagler for his hotels in St. Augustine, but soon Heade was also serving as an artist-in-residence for Flagler’s landmark property, the Ponce de León Hotel, creating souvenirs for the tourist market.

Despite his strong connection to the city’s development, Heade anonymously wrote articles lamenting the gloomy outlook for Florida’s natural resources as a result of growth. For example, “Florida has legislators of wonderful foresight, who can always be relied on to see the danger of exterminating game and plumage birds after they have disappeared, and it’s hardly worth while [sic] to trouble ourselves about the rapidly disappearing manatee.” 

“We caution everybody coming to Florida, Don't hope for too much. Because you hear that roses and callas blossom in the open air all winter, and flowers abound in the woods, don't expect to find an eternal summer. Prepare yourself to see a great deal that looks rough and desolate and coarse; prepare yourself for some chilly days and nights; and, whatever else you neglect to bring with you, bring the resolution, strong and solid, always to make the best of things." — Harriet Beecher Stowe (Palmetto-Leaves)

 

Frederick Carl Frieseke (American, 1874 – 1939), The Saint Johns River, 1921, watercolor on paper, Purchased with funds from the Mae W. Schultz Charitable Lead Trust, The Francis and Miranda Childress Foundation, Inc. and the Kenneth G. Lancaster Restricted Fund, AP.2001.1.14. 
 
Born in Michigan of German ancestry, Frederick Frieseke studied painting in Chicago and Paris. He spent most of his adult life in Europe, but as a child he lived in Jacksonville. Nearing the age of 50, with the help of his daughter, he produced a number of watercolors and paintings about his childhood along with a memoir account. He wrote:
 
“My Aunt Fannie’s parents lived in the orange grove next to ours.  They had two fascinating grown sons.  One, Alan, was a taxidermist.  He kept tiny alligators in a tank and would stuff them.  An alligator mounted on a bent tree trunk of papier maché and reflected in a poisonous looking green pool, was greatly in demand by the northern tourists, as were the Florida scenes by Ransom, always sunsets because the conch shells, on which they were painted, were a beautiful rose color. I admired them greatly and determined I should paint on conch shells when I grew up.  Or maybe I would stuff alligators.”

“Further along the white sand road we would come to a hammock through which a clear stream flowed, and there were always flowers and gorgeous insects.  Beyond was a cypress swamp, hideous and gloomy, with the gaunt cypress knees swarming over the stagnant water, the home of alligators and water moccasins.  Nothing could have tempted me near it.” – artist Frederick Frieseke

Joseph Jeffers Dodge (American, 1917 – 1997), Horizons, 1990, oil on paper, Gift of Mr. Joseph Jeffers Dodge, AG.1996.2.57.

 

Joseph Jeffers “Jerry” Dodge embraced the “infinite pictorial variety” of the sea, marsh, and coast. Particularly fond of the marshland of Silversmith Creek, on which he lived, he also embraced beaches from Ft. Clinch to Washington Oaks as his subjects, writing “I wanted to make the painting specific enough so that it looks convincing, but I’m not a Photo-Realist. It’s always an imaginary idea, a fantasy world that I try to make look real.” One writer observed that Dodge’s Horizons was “…lastingly impressive for its combination of solemn majesty and youthful longing, seen in a carefully rendered study of a youth gazing out at the Ocean’s edge.”  The artist himself was particularly satisfied with the way the water turned out in this painting, remarking that he doubted he could ever paint it so successfully again.

“Could you find a spot which was not too cold and not too warm; not too wet nor yet too dry; where trees were evergreen; where the air was always freighted with the perfume of some sweet scented flower - orange blossom, wisteria, jasmine, or lily; where countless orchids bloomed on friendly trees, where palm spread gracious fronds on every side...Such a spot is Florida, and the dawn of each new day brings to the alert gardener opportunity to make further use of the glorious sunshine, the omnipresent asset of this state.” – Ninah Cummer

Winslow Homer (American, 1836 – 1910), The White Rowboat, St. Johns River, 1890, watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 in., Bequest of Ninah M. H. Cummer, C.0.154.1.

 

Florida’s lush natural beauty appealed to Winslow Homer as both an artist and outdoorsman. He made seven trips to the state, and in 1890 traveled the St. Johns River to fish. During that visit, he was inspired to capture this tranquil scene. Although Florida’s dense, exotic landscape would have appeared ominous to some, Homer simply and directly portrayed Florida topography as a vast expanse of river and marshes, punctuated by four swaying palm trees. Homer merged the epic with the mundane as he placed the stark white rowboat and three fishermen in this solitary habitat, capturing a peaceful moment where man and nature coexist in harmony, even while nature’s supremacy is asserted through the imposing height of the palm trees.

 

 

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