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Details & Cataloguing

The Collection of A. Alfred Taubman: American Art

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New York

Martin Johnson Heade 1819 - 1904
THE GREAT FLORIDA SUNSET
Signed M.J. Heade and dated 1887 (lower right)
Oil on canvas
54 1/4 by 96 inches
(137.8 by 243.7 cm)
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Provenance

Henry Morrison Flagler, St. Augustine, Florida (commissioned from the artist)
Flagler System, Palm Beach, Florida 
Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida 
Mrs. Flagler Matthews, Palm Beach, Florida
Sale: Sotheby's New York, May 25, 1988, lot 50, illustrated
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman

Exhibited

St. Augustine, Florida, Hotel Ponce de León
New York, Peridot-Washburn Gallery, Martin Johnson Heade, January 1972, illustrated fig. 3
Palm Beach, Florida, Society of the Four Arts; St. Petersburg, Florida, Museum of Fine Arts, Views of Florida, March-June 1975, no. 14 
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875, February-June 1980, p. 117, illustrated fig. 124, p. 118
Palm Beach, Florida, Henry Morrison Flagler Museum; Jacksonville, Florida, Summer Art Gallery, Martin Johnson Heade, February-May 1981, no. 13, illustrated
St. Augustine, Florida, Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (on loan)

Literature

Barbara Novak, “Heade at Peridot-Washburn,” Art in America, vol. 60, March-April 1972, pp. 120-21
Henry S. Marks, Who Was Who in Florida, Huntsville, Alabama, 1973, p. 126
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, no. 268, pp. 161-62, 264, illustrated; also illustrated pl. 6
Kevin J. Avery, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, New York, 1987, p. 174
Franklin Kelly, American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 58
William Gerdts, Art Across America, Two Centuries of Regional Painting, 1710-1920, New York, 1990, vol. II, p. 77, illustrated pl. 2.69, p. 76
David C. Miller, Dark Eden: The Swamp and 19th Century American Culture, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1990, pp. 13, 15, 172, illustrated fig. 1.3, p. 114; also illustrated in color on the cover
Ann Vileisis, Discovering the Unknown Landscape, Washington, D.C., 1997, jacket illustration
Alan Gussow, A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, Washington, D.C., 1997, pp. 43-45, illustrated
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Martin Johnson Heade, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, pp. 50, 123, 189, illustrated fig. 44
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, no. 284, p. 271, illustrated; also illustrated p. 152
Roberta Smith Favis, Martin Johnson Heade in Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 2003, pp. 54-56, 111, 125n

Catalogue Note

The Great Florida Sunset
By Dara Mitchell

Martin Johnson Heade’s The Great Florida Sunset has had two owners in the last hundred years, Henry Morrison Flagler and most recently, A. Alfred Taubman. Flagler, a partner with John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, was responsible for pioneering the development of Florida’s East Coast Railway and the resort towns of Miami and Palm Beach where he built the 1000-room Royal Ponciana Hotel and the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers in 1901) in the last decades of the 19th century. In 1887, Flagler commissioned Heade to paint The Great Florida Sunset to decorate the grand Spanish Renaissance style Hotel Ponce de León, designed by Carrère and Hastings, which he was building in St. Augustine. The ambitious painting, the largest of Heade’s career, remained in the hotel which, in 1964, became Flagler College. At some point the painting was moved to Whitehall, the Flagler Beaux-Arts estate in Palm Beach, now the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum. In 1988, Mr. Taubman bought the painting at public sale at Sotheby’s in New York. Appropriately, The Great Florida Sunset then returned to Florida to hang in Mr. Taubman’s Spanish Revival oceanfront home, designed by Addison Mizner and built in Palm Beach in 1924.

Flagler met Heade in 1883 in St. Augustine, when the artist—newly married at 64—was exploring the state of Florida for a suitable place to settle, and Flagler was on his own extended honeymoon with his second wife. Heade had travelled extensively in South America during the 1860’s and 1870, and remained enthralled by the lush landscapes and flowers of the tropics throughout his life and career.  When he wasn’t painting, Heade was also an avid hunter and fisherman, thus the tropical climes and wilds of southern Florida provided a rich natural environment in which to live and paint from 1883 until his death in 1904. Flagler, already a collector on a prodigious scale who had been buying paintings from M. Knoedler & Co. in New York since 1879, became one of Heade’s most generous patrons buying over a dozen of the artist’s works over the years.

In a letter dated June 16th, 1887, before the official opening of the Hotel Ponce de León in 1888, Heade wrote: “To please the hotel guests, Flagler has put up a row of studios—half a dozen—adjoining the hotel, & they are taken already. Two Boston artists, a young German—& ‘me too’ have taken our share” (as cited in Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 146). Heade gave art lessons and met with affluent guests, many of whom became patrons.  The success of Flagler’s hotel, along with several others in the area, proved to be an inestimable boon to Heade’s career. Financially secure for the first time, he and his wife Elizabeth hosted receptions at his studio and achieved a certain social distinction apart from Heade’s artistic success. He no longer sent his paintings to New York and Boston for sale through dealers, but sold most of his works to hotel guests, as well as to the wealthy residents of the increasingly prosperous town of St. Augustine.

The Great Florida Sunset was one of two tropical scenes Heade painted to fulfill the Flagler commission for the Hotel Ponce de León, the other being the slightly smaller View from Fern-Tree Walk, Jamaica (53 by 90 inches, Private Collection). In a letter dated April 11th, 1887 Heade wrote, “I’m painting two landscapes for him (8 ft. long) which will take some thousands out of his pocket, but I think he can stand it” (as cited in Stebbins, 2000, p. 150). Both pictures hung in the upper rotunda of the hotel according to an 1892 report in the St. Augustine New Herald.

Theodore E. Stebbins, the noted Heade scholar, wrote what stands as one of the best contextual analyses of the painting, placing it alongside other seminal works within the American tradition of monumental 19th century landscape painting. It would be difficult to improve upon: he writes, “In The Great Florida Sunset, perhaps the largest canvas of his life, the artist makes scale work for him; indeed, the effect of a splendid twilight in the wilderness marsh is almost overpoweringly dramatic. The painting is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Heade’s age at the time (he was sixty-seven) and his ability to overcome the sense of barrenness that had been marring his landscapes for over a decade. Moreover, Florida Sunset was conceived as a heroic transcendental celebration of nature and is thus a spiritual successor to such paintings as Thomas Cole’s Oxbow of 1836, George Inness’s Peace and Plenty of 1867, and of course the whole series of North and South American landscapes by Church.

"Indeed, Heade’s picture was a final grand gesture of realistic landscape art in America. Unlike Bierstadt’s contemporary work (such as The Last of the Buffalo, 1888), Heade’s painting is a worthy and genuine successor to the wilderness paintings of Cole and Church; for not only its dramatic sense of color, but the awed hush of a fecund wilderness where man’s presence is not known, mark it as the last in the mode that reached its natural climax twenty-five years earlier in Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness. Here not only is Heade’s brushwork tighter than in the Jersey marsh scenes that preceded it, but the composition includes effective use of such relatively small-scale details as the waterlilies in the left foreground, the ducks in the water farther back, and the white heron, to the right. At the same time, there are no detailed, ‘readable’ sections of a real world to be seen, as in Church’s work; Heade’s is rather a picture of effects, best beheld from a distance, given the spectacular cloud formations, as well as the throbbing red-orange tone that fills the large canvas and determines the color of both sky and water” (Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The Life and Works of Martin Johnson Heade, New Haven, Connecticut, 1975, pp. 161-62).

It is tempting to view The Great Florida Sunset as the product of an artist who seized Flagler’s commission as an opportunity to make a lasting and final statement. The monumental scale of the painting, as well as its title, suggests a culminating effort of a life’s work as well as an attempt to revisit the grand tradition of American landscape painting, which had become outmoded by this time. The brilliant but fading light of sunset silhouettes an uprooted tree in the center of the composition; its contorted, tortured roots, Heade’s tropical reinvention of the blasted tree motif, pierce the mirror-like perfection of the water’s surface as they rise out of the swamp’s primordial depths. In the wake of Salvator Rosa, Cole and Church, Heade resurrects the age-old symbol that alludes to the ravages and passage of time in this quietly darkening landscape.

Heade’s life and career (1819-1904) had spanned nearly the entire 19th century by 1887 and born witness in its last quarter to the decline of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, when even the popular landscapes of the most celebrated artist in America, Frederic Church (1826-1900), had lost their appeal for the public. Church and Heade were lifelong friends and correspondents until Church’s death in 1900. They had met in the late 1850’s when Heade came to New York where Church was already a star in the art world’s sparkling firmament. From 1866-1879 they shared a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, the locus for American artists from all over the country.

While Heade developed his own original style and subject matter, he was, like so many of his contemporaries, deeply influenced by Church. In the late 1870’s, Church began spending a great deal of his time at Olana, his magnificent estate on the Hudson, and away from the Tenth Street studio; by 1880 Heade had departed the Studio Building and resumed his itinerant lifestyle, moving between hotels and boarding houses along the Eastern seaboard for the next three years. In a series of letters from December 1882 he wrote, “It looks as if I was never to be settled again. I’ve been a wanderer on the face of the earth ever since I left that studio in 10th St., with Church; & he has lost his health & spirits entirely…I’ve rambled about so long that I’m in a very unsettled state of mind & can’t be contented anywhere” (as cited in Stebbins, 2000, p. 140).

By 1883, Church’s rheumatoid arthritis was hindering his ability to paint, while Heade had managed to create a new life for himself, marry and settle permanently in St. Augustine. Finding himself an established, secure artist for the first time in his life, the Flagler commission gave Heade the opportunity to paint the largest work he had ever attempted and produce a testament to the native landscape tradition that had defined and continues to define American art in the 19th century.

Sotheby’s would like to thank Dara Mitchell for writing the catalogue essay for the present lot.

Dara Mitchell is the former Head of Sotheby's American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture department.

The Collection of A. Alfred Taubman: American Art

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New York