Memories of Jacksonville in the 1880s
By Holly Keris, J. Wayne & Delores Barr Weaver Chief Curator, Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
A new exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens celebrates a noted American Impressionist painter and shines a light on 1880s Jacksonville. Frederick Carl Frieseke moved to northeast Florida in 1881 at the age of seven. He lived just outside the Jacksonville city limits along with his father and sister. The young boy was enchanted with his new surroundings. His family stayed four years before returning to Michigan. Although he would not return, Frieseke never forgot his time on the First Coast. Later in life, while living near Giverny, France, he created a series of watercolors and paintings inspired by his childhood. He exhibited the paintings in Paris at the Galeries Durand-Ruel in 1926 and the Salon des Tuilleries in 1927, then in New York at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1927 and at the Macbeth Gallery in 1929. Assembled from the Cummer’s permanent collection, the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, and private lenders, the exhibition brings together 16 of Frieseke’s 18 Florida watercolors and five of their companion oil paintings. Shown alongside a series of historic photographs, the exhibition is a charming snapshot of our city’s past through the eyes of a child who ultimately became an internationally respected artist.
I would go down to the wharf on the little creek, through which the lighters were poled to the Saint John’s [sic] River to be picked up by a tug and towed to Jacksonville.
This was a favorite spot of mine. While I quietly fished with a hand line I would keep my eyes open for any wild life in the jungle opposite. Once an otter swam the river. Moccasins and alligators were no longer a novelty. Sometimes a flamingo or a pelican crossed the narrow opening in the treetops. Flaming cardinal redbirds flashed through the branches, and hummingbirds always. Deep in the clear water the fish, spotted fish, red fish, striped fish, black, blue, impossible fish.
Young Frederick arrived in Jacksonville following the death of his mother. His father, Herman, owned a brick factory in Owosso, Michigan, and wanted to open a similar business near his brother. Albert Frieseke owned a general store and post office in Floral Bluff, which today would be south of Jacksonville University and University Boulevard.
When the Friesekes arrived in Jacksonville, they witnessed a community dealing with the aftereffects of the Civil War. However, being a port town aided the city’s recovery, not only thanks to the goods that moved through to other centers of commerce but also because the ships and railroads brought tourists and new settlers in return. Frederick’s father was one of many new business owners in town. According to census records, in 1860, Duval County’s entire population was 5,074. In 1890, Jacksonville’s population alone had ballooned to 17,201.
After the war, across the St. Johns River from downtown, former land grants were subdivided into smaller plots for the new arrivals. The name Arlington first appeared in 1873 in conjunction with a failed religious settlement. Floral Bluff Plantation, granted by the Spanish government in the 1790s but part of the Bigelow family after 1832, became a formal community with its own post office in 1887. Although this was after Frederick and his family returned to Michigan, the unincorporated area was in close proximity to their home. The community’s busy dock had regular service downtown. Nearby, in Chaseville and Reddie’s Point, was a lumber mill. Gullah Geechee and free Black communities developed around a plantation owned by Zephaniah Kingsley’s nephew, Charles McNeill, and his wife Elizabeth, a free person of color. Interestingly, Charles’ sister, Anna, has become famous in her own right as the subject of the painting commonly called “Whistler’s Mother,” made by her son, artist James McNeill Whistler.