Artists Who Brought Florida to Life

Posted December 5, 2018 11:28 p.m. EST

MIAMI — Winslow Homer loved fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys and along the Gulf Coast. John Singer Sargent dropped into Ormond Beach to paint a portrait of John D. Rockefeller and visit friends in Miami. Louis Comfort Tiffany, of stained-glass fame, went to St. Augustine for his wife’s health and later lived and painted in the winters in Miami.

Long before Art Basel Miami Beach brought sizzling cultural glamour to South Florida, some of America’s best-known artists — and some not as well known — were laying down an eclectic trail of art in a state best known for its beaches, unfailing sunshine and end-of-the-beyond characters.

The artists and such renowned photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange created a significant body of Florida work that has quietly accumulated and rarely been exhibited.

Now, during Art Basel Miami Beach, an art museum about an hour’s drive up the coast from Miami is showing scores of paintings and photographs that provide glimpses of Florida as it morphed from wild frontier to vacationland and, eventually, to one of the most populous states. Most of the work in the show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, “Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State,” is from the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century. But one engraving of a magnolia is from 1754.

The show, which runs through March 24, is a montage of seascapes and landscapes, portraits of elegant people, working people, sunsets and beaches and swamps, logging and road building, alligators, Native Americans, chain gangs and scenes from Eatonville, a once and always small town near Orlando in the middle of the state, one of the first black communities to coalesce in America after emancipation.

The Florida work lacks the unifying stylistic threads and deliberateness of, say, the Hudson River Valley School or Texas Regionalism. Yet it reflects the uncharted, herky-jerky way that Florida came to be Florida.

“This is an important story to be told,” said Irvin M. Lippman, the executive director of the museum. “It’s a diverse story, an eclectic story, a never-ending story.”

Lippman said he considered souvenirs from the decades of pre-Disney roadside attractions and gift shops in Florida as noteworthy. And he is displaying a stuffed alligator, a hand-painted photograph from the Parrot Jungle and other irresistible and, these days, seldom-seen mementos.

“Why not extend the conversation?” he asked. Like the painters and the photographers, he said, the souvenir makers “were also creating memories.”

Some artists and photographers went to Florida on assignment as illustrators for magazines and newspapers. Some were invited by foundations and wealthy patrons. Some were drawn by family connections. Others were among the tens of thousands of Americans sent to Florida for military training in World War II. A few were home grown.

Florida was a getaway place for Homer for nearly 20 years beginning in the mid-1880s. After working with Rockefeller, Sargent, on his one trip to Florida in 1917, painted portraits in Miami and scenes at James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya.

Tiffany built a winter home in Miami in the early 1920s, and in 1925 he painted a beach scene that is in the show.

Henry Flagler, the Florida developer and a founder, with Rockefeller, of Standard Oil, set up artists’ studios in his Hotel Ponce de León in St. Augustine. “It was one his strategies for attracting tourists,” said Jennifer Hardin, the curator of the paintings, watercolors and engravings.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, an Impressionist, lived as a child with an uncle in Jacksonville. He painted the show’s “Hunting Alligators, Pink Sea” and “Fishing, Jacksonville,” from memory, decades later in Giverny, the village near Paris that Claude Monet made famous.

Frederic Remington stopped over in Tampa on assignment for The New York Journal to illustrate the Spanish-American War in Cuba.

Hardin, the chief curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, until 2015, found some of the paintings unframed in the files of a New York gallery and in storage at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Gary Monroe, a photographer, writer and sometime curator who grew up in Miami Beach, wrangled the photos and the roadside attraction art. He knew that Cartier-Bresson, one of the pioneers of photojournalism, had been on assignment in Miami for Life magazine. And he got the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris to ship six of those photographs to Boca Raton.

He set out, he said, “to unearth work that had not been seen, or not been seen often.” Among the things he came up with are shots of everyday life by unheralded commercial photographers in Miami and Jacksonville, a water ballet at a Miami Beach hotel swimming pool and a publicity shot of a man in a sailor suit tossing a fish to a leaping dolphin at a tourist attraction. Two of the paintings are by members of a short-lived Florida group of African-American artists known as the Highwaymen. They were young, ambitious, looking to make money and, experts say, some thought of themselves more as entrepreneurs than as artists. They painted bold, elemental landscapes, often on 3-foot-by-2-foot panels, mainly in the 1960s and ‘70s. They painted quickly — sometimes five or six works a day — and sold quickly, sometimes before the paint was even dry.

“They sold them for $25 apiece,” said Monroe, who wrote a book on the Highwaymen. “People thought of the paintings as giant postcards. But one recently sold at auction for $46,000.”

The pastel pink-painted Boca Raton Museum of Art sits at one end of a long, narrow park with fountains and palm trees. On the flanks, boutiques and chic restaurants peek out from shaded promenades.

The exhibition coincides with the 17th iteration of Art Basel Miami Beach. “Art Basel is a celebration of contemporary art,” Lippman said one afternoon in Boca Raton.

“We’re celebrating the visual history of Florida,” he said. “It’s important to realize that there’s been a continuum of art and artists coming to Florida for centuries.”

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