Frieseke, Frederick Carl

Frederick Carl Frieseke is celebrated for his intimate portrayals of attractive women in domestic settings. As one of the most well-known American Impressionists, his brilliantly colored works are exemplary of the movement, bringing together a brilliant study of light and color on canvas. Perhaps best loved for his colorful nudes, he also produced stunning portraits of women and children in brilliantly hued gardens that are among the very best of their period. Read on to learn more about this impressive life and art of this famed expatriate.

Early Life

Frederick Carl Frieseke


Self-Portrait by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1901 (Private Collection)



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.

Frederick Carl Frieseke


The Rose Kimono by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1901-1904 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)


Frederick Carl Frieseke


The Princess from the Land of Porcelain by James McNeill Whistler. Circa 1863-1865 (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)



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.



Frederick Carl Frieseke


Girl Reading by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1903 - 1904 (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)



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.

Frederick Carl Frieseke


Venetian Blind - Giverny by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1923 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)



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.

Frederick Carl Frieseke


Siesta by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1917 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)


Frederick Carl Frieseke


In the Nursery by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1917 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)



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.

Frederick Carl Frieseke
Self Portrait by Frederick Carl Frieseke. Circa 1938 (Private collection)



The Normandy Years

The early 1920s were momentous years in the artist’s life. First, Frieseke was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a remarkable achievement for an American painter. He was at the very height of his career, and undoubtedly the most popular living American artist, despite his ex-pat status. It was also the year that he moved to Normandy, embarking on the third and final stylistic phase of his impressive career.
His works in Normandy reveal his style coming full circle. His figures became more solidly rendered, his colors more muted and his brushwork softening. His fascination with pattern diminished as he made a distinctive move from impressionism to realism. The results were compositions that became ever more contemplative and quiet.
Although he frequently considered returning to Michigan late in his life, he died at his farmhouse in Normandy in August 1939. It was just a few months after a major retrospective of his work opened at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City. Heavily awarded throughout his career, he is just as highly lauded today. His works are represented in nearly all major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.