Born in the central Michigan city of Owosso in 1874, Frieseke came from humble beginnings. His grandparents emigrated from Pritzerbe, Germany (a small village just north of Brandenburg) in 1858. The couple settled in Owosso with their sons, including Frieseke’s father, Herman Carl. Herman served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, later returning to Michigan and starting a brick manufacturing business. He married Eva Graham, and they had two children: a daughter named Edith in 1871 and their son, Frederick, in 1874. Tragically, his mother died in 1880 when Frederick was only six years of age; her death prompted the family to move to Jacksonville in 1881. Florida would significantly impact the young Frieseke, who would later produce a series of watercolors dedicated to the region.
He showed a predilection for art at a young age, moving to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to New York in 1895, entering the school at the Art Students League in 1897 while also selling illustrations to publications such as The New York Times and Puck, the humor magazine. However, like many artists of his generation, he soon decided to move to Paris to continue his education — apart from a few visits to the United States later in his life, France would remain his home.
An International Education
He resumed his studies in Paris at the Académie Julian, where he worked under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He also worked for a brief time in the short-lived atelier of James McNeill Whistler, the Académie Carmen. Whistler undoubtedly had the most significant impact on the young painter in these earliest years of his career. He produced landscapes and figural works that both betray Frieseke’s admiration for his fellow expatriate, particularly in the limited color palette and tonal range of these early compositions.
The artist’s The Rose Kimono is an exceptional example of this early style, wherein the influence of Whistler is firmly on display. It is part of a specific genre of American kimono pictures that were inspired by Whistler's The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, among other works, which Frieseke would have encountered in 1893 in Chicago. His subject's patterned robes and the wall coverings clearly recall Whistler's distinctive color arrangements, while the work's strong silhouette, elegant contours and delicate variations of hues and patterns all pay homage to the American master. The distinctively positioned door that dominates the right side of the composition also recalls the richly textured drapery that appears in Whistler's celebrated portrait of his mother.
In 1901, perhaps thanks to his adoption of a Whistlerian style, Frieseke was asked to exhibit with the International Society of Painters and Sculptors in Paris. Whistler, in fact, had served as the society’s first president; when speaking of his exhibition there, Frieseke described the society as "the one to which Whistler belongs."
In addition to his early exhibition successes, Frieseke also had the exceptionally good luck of securing an important patron at this early stage of this career. Beginning in 1898 and persisting for nearly 10 years, he enjoyed the financial patronage of Rodman Wanamaker, an American department store magnate and then-president of the American Art Association of Paris. Wanamaker commissioned Frieseke to create large-scale murals for his stores in New York City and Atlantic City, which not only brought him a degree of fame, but also financial stability.
The Giverny Years
Perhaps the most important turning point in Frieseke’s artistic trajectory was his first visit to the artist colony in Giverny in 1900. The work he created while in Giverny was among the most significant of his career. His paintings soon lost the more darkened palette that Whistler had inspired, and instead, Frieseke began to adopt the Impressionist ideals of light, brightened color and energetic brushwork.
It is little coincidence that Giverny’s most prominent resident was the great French Impressionist Claude Monet. Indeed, Monet was the reason why so many American artists had flocked to the region; soon after he settled there in 1883, American artists seeking to learn the impressionist style made the pilgrimage to visit the artist. Willard Metcalf, Louis Ritter, Theodore Wendel and John Leslie Breck were among the earliest artists to “discover” the village, and together they established the unofficial Giverny Colony.
Frieseke was among the “second wave” of American artists to make the pilgrimage in the region. Yet, unlike many of his fellow expatriates, he would pass an extended period of time in the area, and it had a profound impact on his artistic style. From 1906 until 1913, he spent his summers in Giverny, taking up residence in a house just next door to Monet. Despite their proximity, the two artists rarely met, though that did not stop Frieseke from feeling the influence of his famed neighbor.
Rather than Monet, it was to Renoir that Frieseke credited his most profound Impressionist influence, and the impact of that painter is evident in many of his sensuous portraits of women in repose. Yet, his distinctive style of “Decorative Impressionism” — a term used by the art writer Christian Brinton in 1911 to describe his work — perhaps most closely reveals the influence of the Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis. The group of French artists pioneered the use of color and pattern for expressive purposes rather than naturalistically. In taking impressionist ideals to the extreme, Frieseke similarly adopts the aesthetic principles of pure color and pattern that had first been heralded by Les Nabis in the 1890s.