Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Historical Documentation vs. Artistic Interpretation: The Seminole Paintings of Eugene Savage

The oil and watercolors illustrating Seminole culture, completed by painter, Eugene Francis Savage (1883-1978) during the 1930s through the 1950s are as mystifying as they are beautiful.  One is unsure as to whether his compositions represent historical records or depict fantastical and surrealistic imagery. Savage, who is best known for his mural work of the same time period, is also remembered for these paintings of the Seminole Native Americans of Florida.  Born in Covington, Indiana, Savage studied at the Corcoran Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago before finding himself at the American Academy in Rome, Italy.  Though he became well-versed in the classical styles of the Old World, Savage eventually identified more with the modern and the avant-garde as evidenced by the dreamscapes of his Seminole paintings and drawings.
Artist, Eugene Francis Savage in 1915. Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens, Jacksonville, FL.   
The cultural movement of Surrealism, begun in the early 1920s, developed from the Dada ideologies of World War I.  The Dadaists believed that the Great War manifested from excessively rational thought and values.  For the Dadaists and subsequent Surrealists, truth and the ordinary are essential in art but should be realized through a full range of the imagination.  Also factoring into the Surrealist ideology was the groundbreaking work on psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud which was taking root in the cultural fabric of society at this time.  The meanings behind dreams and the unconscious are crucial subjects in Surrealist art and are often portrayed through fantastical imagery, ironic usage of color, and strange emotions emanating from the composition.
   Receiving a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Yale, Savage would have been familiar with the Surrealist movement.  On a vacation to Florida in 1935, Savage apparently became fascinated with the Seminole people, who since the Seminole Wars of the 1840s were living practically secluded from Anglo-American culture in the swampy, remote Everglades.  Yet they were not so isolated that the Seminoles were devoid of influence from other cultures.  According to scholar Dorothy Downs, "two centuries of exchanges between the antecedents of the Miccosukee and Seminole and Scottish and English settlers in Georgia and Alabama lie behind the more recent textile tradition."  The textiles to which Downs refers are the colorful, patchwork clothing worn by the Seminole and the Miccosukee, a production process which was completed with the use of sewing machines.  It was during the early 1930s, the same time that Savage was hiring guides to introduce him to the Seminole people, that tourists were being drawn to the Native Americans' exhibition villages, providing welcome opportunities for economic development as visitors watched the women working at their machines, creating the geometric patterned clothing in a quilting technique.
Florence I. Randall. Seminole Women at Musa Isle Indian Village, Florida, 1930. Photograph.
However, to reiterate Downs' notion, this patchwork tradition was relatively recent.  In 1955 scholar, Hilda Davis discusses how earlier depictions of Seminole garments were a contrast to this bright, machine-made patchwork.  A painting done by George Catlin in 1838 of Chief Osceola depicts a dress of calico while others encountering the Seminole at this time describe similar clothing made of gingham and calico.
George Catlin. Chief Osceola, 1838. Lithograph, 28 3/4" x 19 5/8". University of Georgia Libraries.
   Yet, the clothing that Florida tourists of the 1930s were viewing was much different than these earlier descriptions.  And Savage, as his many paintings and drawings of Seminole figures wearing patchwork clothing attest, was inspired by the vivid color and geometric designs.  Perhaps it was the trance-like, repeating patterns that impressed Savage to depict the Seminole through Surrealist techniques.  Or maybe it was Savage's own vision of a people whom he thought of as mysterious and hypnagogic which brought about his dreamscape rendering of the Seminole.  In either case, in 1935 he began these gloriously vivid masterpieces while retaining in them a sense of illusion and numinous energy.
   South Moon Under of 1936 depicts a serene and bucolic image of a Seminole woman under the moonlight.  She stands, floating atop a lake, beneath the whispering Spanish moss in her flat, dug-out canoe of cypress.  Her bowing head contemplates her hands as the brilliant colors of her garments and vehicle seem to melt thickly around her by way of water's reflection.  A dull, yellow orb, which is actually the moon, appears to rise from beneath the surface of the water, lending a queer sense of inversion to the scene.
Eugene Savage. South Moon Under, 1936. Oil on board, 20"x 20". Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens, Jacksonville, FL.
     Paintings such as these by Savage have been described by some to be recording the Seminole experience.  For example, South Moon Under supposedly records the traditional garb of a culture and its melancholic attitudes as the group's land was encroached upon by Anglo-American civilization.  It should be noted that at this time in Florida history, the River of Grass and other bodies of water were being drained to create the Everglades National Park.
     Also important to understand is how the dominant Anglo-American culture viewed Native American cultures during Savage's time.  By 1930, the West had finally been tamed and Native populations had, for the most part, been moved onto Federally designated reservations.  Some Seminole people had avoided this forced, mass migration during the mid-nineteenth century by retreating deep into the Everglades.  In a further attempt to assimilate Native American people into Anglo-American culture, the Bureau of Indian Affairs operated boarding schools well into the twentieth-century, forcing Native American children to adopt Anglo-American cultural and social norms.  The General Allotment Act of 1887, which was continued until 1934, individualized tribal lands by authorizing allotments held in individual tenure.  Thus, the U.S. government's Native American problem was no longer being approached through feelings of fear and righteousness like during the Wild West era, but perhaps through feelings of guilt and responsibility.
      According to scholar W. Jackson Rushing this time period around the end of the Depression and before America was drawn into World War II is critical with regard to how the dominant, American culture perceived Native Americans. To Rushing, this moment contributed to a mentality where Native Americans, their art, and culture were viewed as exclusively American; devoid of any European ties.  This stance allowed Anglo-Americans to affix a label of unparalleled patriotism to Native Americans and their ways of life.
      After an exploration of the attitudes toward Native Americans by the dominant Anglo-American culture and the ideologies of the Surrealist movement of the early twentieth-century, one can question if Eugene Savage was truly recording a culture and its experiences.  He was viewing the Seminole through an idyllic lens, romanticizing their existence as being the last of its kind.  Savage and his peers held the same viewpoint as those on the Western frontiers seventy-years prior, exemplified by the mad rush by anthropologists and museum professionals to collect "traditional" artifacts before the disappearance of the Native populations.  One can view Savage's works as operating in much the same way.  Like the academic community almost a half-century earlier, Savage acted to preserve and collect a culture's traditions before the supposed extinction of its people.  However, this raises the question as to what traditional customs are and how are they defined as such.
     If Savage was recording the experience of a culture, he was excluding multitudes of information.  For example, Savage's paintings present the patchwork clothing as if it is a traditional art form, persevering through many generations, not a new innovation that was only approximately fifty-years old.  By implying that the Seminole were a culturally-isolated group that was losing its land to encroachment, Savage's audience is being misinformed.  This purview is flawed as indicated by the melange of cultures which contributed to the Seminole patchwork technique and their fairly recent move into the Everglades from present-day Georgia and Alabama.
   As historical documents of a culture, Savage's drawings and paintings of the Seminole people lack credence.  His records were completed through a biased lens and void of a Native voice or an in-depth cultural understanding.  However, it is unlikely that Savage intended these illustrations as historically accurate depictions.  In their own right, these images are works of art and stand alone outside of any meaning or interpretation.  Exhibitions of these works should reflect this difference between record and interpretation, and audiences should be made aware how Native cultures have been seen through many skewed perspectives and biases over their long history of encounters with Anglo-American and other cultures.  The public must realize that these cultures are still being studied by way of re-evaluated methodologies and new approaches to this very day and that the romantic and idyllic notions of the past must be noted and overcome in order to obtain any true understanding of Native American cultures.


Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Blackard, David M. Review of Art of the Florida Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, by Dorothy Downs. The Florida Historical Quarterly 74, no. 3 (Winter, 1996): 334-339. Accessed February 19, 2012. doi: 30148852.

Boyd, Alexander. Seminole Dreams of Florida Past: Paintings by Eugene Savage (1883-1978)http://www.hamiltonauctiongalleries.com/Eugene-Savage.htm

Davis, Hilda. "The History of Seminole Clothing and Its Multi-Colored Designs." American AnthropologistNew Series 57, No. 5 (Oct., 1955): 974-98. Accessed February 19, 2012. doi: 666031.

Kersey, Harry A. Jr. "Educating the Seminole of Florida, 1879-1970." The Florida Historical Quarterly 49, no. 1 (July, 1970): 16-35. Accessed February 19, 2012. doi: 30145818.

Patton, Charlie. "Cummer's Collection of Eugene Savage's Seminole Paintings Makes Its Public Debut."  The Florida Times, October 7, 2011. http://jacksonville.com/entertainment/arts/2011-10-07/story/cummers-collection-eugene-savages-seminole-paintings-makes-its

Rushing, W. Jackson. "Marketing the Affinity of the Primitive and the Modern: Rene D'Harnoncourt and 'Indian Art of the United States.'" In The Early Years of Native American Art History: The Politics of Scholarship and Collecting, edited by Janet C. Berlo, chapter 7. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992. 


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