Lucile Blanch’s Osceola Holding Informal Council with His Chiefs, (1938) once located at the Fort Pierce, Florida post office, is now on display at the Fort Pierce Town Hall. Born in Hawley, Minnesota in 1895, Blanch studied art at the Minnesota School of Art as well as the Arts Student League in New York where she was mentored by Boardman Robinson. She and her husband, the artist Arnold Blanch, were instrumental in establishing the Woodstock Artist Colony in 1922. In that same year, she began to show her work with the New York Society of Women Artists and at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City (Heller and Heller, 73). In 1933 Blanch earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and she took advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. In 1935 and 1936 she taught at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, and in 1938 the United States Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned her to paint the mural for the Fort Pierce Post Office (Perkins, 27).
The mural depicts the Seminole Indians in Florida, and more specifically the Seminole leader and warrior Osceola. Depictions of Osceola in art were certainly not new to American art when Blanch selected this topic for her mural; the most well-known image is a portrait of the Seminole leader painted by George Catlin in 1838. Like Catlin, Blanch depicted Osceola in his finest regalia including, a vibrant green long shirt, finger woven knee garters, a woven belt of red, a beaded sash, and his head is covered with a traditional turban adorned with large feather plumes. Yet, the artist has moved beyond the straight-forward portraiture of Catlin, and created a complex scene of Seminole life.
Although he is not the most central figure in the composition, Osceola does appear to be the most important; he leans slightly forward clutching is rifle as he consults with three of his advisors, who, like Osceola are also depicted in their finest clothing. Blanch has placed her figures in a Florida landscape that includes palm trees, interestingly she has placed a palm tree directly behind Osceola, the bend of the trunk follows the curve of his body, an interesting device that further calls attention to him as the focal point of this painting.
Despite the emphasis on the figures that occupy the right side of the composition, Blanch has also included other vignettes depicting the daily lives of the Seminole Indians. On the left side of the painting, she has included a genre scene which includes two Seminole women and a male child handing one of them a conch shell to examine. Like the men, the women are wearing clothing typical of the Seminole which includes long, floor length skirts, capes are worn over their blouses, and they are further adorned with necklaces made of glass beads. Unlike the male figures that are depicted standing within the landscape, the females and child stand under and nearby a Chickee style abode that became popular with the Seminole people during the opening decades of the 1800s. Made of a thatched roof over a cypress wood structure, the Chickee provided a quickly constructed and reliable form of shelter.
At the center of the painting, Blanch depicted another male figure, he stands defiantly with his arms crossed; his head is titled upward toward the sky, a spear lies on the ground directly behind him, a panther which appears to be wounded or dead lies on the ground in front of him. Seminole society was based on living in direct relation to the land: hunting, trapping, and eventually trading with the outside peoples at “frontier outposts” were all sources of Seminole economic life (“Survival in the Swamp,” Seminole Tribe of Florida). This type of reliance on the natural environment is represented by the male figure in the background, who is seen fishing on the bank of a river or a stream. On the other hand, the panther is not an indication of subsistence, but, instead the large cat has a deeper meaning within Seminole culture.
The panther in Seminole culture is not only one of the eight clans recognized within the tribe, it is also a major figure in the Seminole creation story which tells that the panther was the favored animal of the creator, and that upon creating the earth the panther would be first to step upon the earth (“Legends” Seminole Tribe of Florida). The overall significance of the imagery Blanch uses throughout this mural is quite telling. The dead Panther could be read as an iconographic device to represent the challenges the Seminole Indians would face, including the loss of life, as they struggled with the United States government and fought the military in an effort to remain in Florida rather than be forced to relocate to Indian Territory. This dire situation is also reflected in the ominous dark clouds that fill the sky over the Chickee. Yet, the male figure is depicted in a defiant pose; perhaps, an indication of the Seminole Tribes willingness to stay and fight for their land and their rights, even if it meant loss of life as indicated by the dead panther.
The Seminoles resistance was hard fought and began well before President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Beginning with the Creek War of 1813-1814 conflicts were ongoing throughout the early 19th century, and by December of 1835 conflict between the Seminole Indians and the government continued in what would become known as the Second Seminole War. Jackson was so determined to drive the Seminole out of Florida he allocated 40 million dollars in support of the government ’s efforts. (Indian Resistance and Removal, Seminole Tribe of Florida). The chiefs with whom Osceola is depicted may be the Seminole leaders, Jumper, Alligator, and Micanopy each of these men and their leader Osceola led the Seminole Tribe in a valiant effort to remain in their homeland. Osceola would eventually be captured under a flag of truce by General Thomas Jessup and imprisoned in a South Carolina jail where he died while in custody in 1838. Despite their defeat, the Seminole tribe remains a healthy and viable both in the state of Florida, where some of the tribe remained after forced removal, and in Oklahoma where those Seminole that were relocated adjusted to their new homeland. Like the defiant figure in the center of Blanch’s painting, the Seminole did not take defeat in the Second Seminole War as the beginning of the end for their culture; instead they found new ways to maintain their culture which thrives in the twenty-first century.
By Anderson Hanna, BA
Tribal website: http://www.semtribe.com
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