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The mystery of Florida as seen through the eyes of Bunny Yeager, Dorothea Lange and other master artists

When photographer Gary Monroe arrived in Miami Beach in the late 1970s, he discovered a trove of Old Florida photographs on the brink of ruin. About 17,500 photo negatives of Miami Beach from a little-known photographer named Gleason Waite Romer were gathering dust in musty cardboard boxes at the old Miami-Dade Public Library in Bayfront Park. The library’s open windows didn’t help, exposing the images to the humid air.

Monroe preserved the negatives (“it was an archivist’s nightmare scenario,” he says), which include images of beachgoers and beauty queens, package stores and well-dressed tourists. Recently, he again became obsessed with Romer. He was the first artist Monroe thought of when the Boca Raton Museum of Art asked him to curate “Imagining Florida,” an ambitious new exhibit opening Nov. 13.

Subtitled “Myth and Mystery in the Sunshine State,” the show revisits the history of Florida through unsung artists such as Romer, but also the master painters and photographers who captured the Sunshine State best, such as John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bunny Yeager and Purvis Young.

“Florida has always been built on the dreams and schemes of paradise,” Monroe says by phone from his home in DeLand. “We’ve been selling Florida that way for a long time.”

“Imagining Florida” dives into roughly 300 years of paintings and photos, spanning 18th century frontier outposts on the St. John’s River through the Space Age boom, best captured in Garry Winogrand’s 1969 photo of excited tourists pointing binoculars at the Apollo 11 rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.

These paintings and photos took three years to gather from some 15 small and blue-chip museums (Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) and from key private collectors, Boca Museum of Art director Irvin Lippman says.

Because of the exhibit’s marquee names and scale — 200-plus artworks on both floors — it’s the museum’s most ambitious show since Lippman became director in 2013. Only the museum’s 2017 exhibit “Glasstress,” a giant display of international glass installations, comes close, he says.

“It’s a landmark exhibition. The works are all over the map, but that’s because artists came to Florida for many reasons,” Lippman says. “They came to depict Native Americans. James Audubon came to etch birds. Others came to paint exotic flora or pass through on assignment or show Florida’s tourism.”

The paintings

Early naturalists such as Mark Catesby were spellbound by the Sunshine State for 100 years by the time ornithologist John James Audubon came to the Florida Keys in 1833. Among the first paintings to greet visitors at the museum is Audubon’s etching “Zenaida Dove” (hand-colored by Robert Havell, Jr.), featuring the migratory dove in the Florida Keys. Audubon, whose crew found themselves low on provisions, was not above eating the same doves to stay alive, describing their flesh as “excellent.”

“Yes, he thought the birds were quite delicious,” says Jennifer Hardin, the show’s painting curator, who gathered 80 original paintings for “Imagining Florida.” “Artists wanted to capture what made Florida exotic.”

During a recent museum visit, Hardin points to George Snow Hill’s 1938 painting “Building the Tamiami Trail,” showing African-American laborers in prison stripes building the east-west Everglades road. “It wasn’t always the pretty, picturesque version of the state we see in postcards,” she says.

Hardin says big-name painters descended on Florida not as the vanguards of a new art school, like New York’s Hudson River Valley, but because they were invited by railroad tycoon Henry Flagler and socialite James Deering. John Singer Sargent, perhaps the most famous, arrived at his friend Deering’s just-finished winter home Villa Vizcaya (now Viscaya Museum and Gardens) in 1917.

Sargent was unimpressed with Florida’s flora and fauna (“palmettos and alligators don’t make interesting pictures,” he said), but he did like Deering’s Italian Renaissance-style villa and boathouse. In 1917, Sargent painted “Basin With Sailor, Villa Vizcaya,” capturing a sailor who manned Deering’s 80-foot yacht, Nepenthe.

Farther north, along the Lake Worth Lagoon, the area’s red royal poincianas enchanted painter Laura Woodward for her 1889 painting “Poinciana on Lake Worth.” Henry Flagler later built his first Gilded Age hotel in Palm Beach, the Royal Poinciana, near the same spot in 1893, Hardin says.

But it was popular painters such as Jules Andre Smith working in Eatonville, the home of author Zora Neale Hurston, who helped “unleash” contemporary artists on South Florida, Hardin says. Smith, a friend of Hurston, here depicts 1940s African-American folk life, including cotton field workers and Sunday worshipers.

“It’s almost funny. [Smith] was on his way to Miami to open an art studio, but he never made it past Eatonville,” Hardin says. “He later created the Maitland Art Center and brought dozens of artists here on art fellowships.”

The photographs

In mining the state’s history with tens of thousands of photographs, Gary Monroe spotted a common theme: Florida was sold as a paradise long before tourists descended on Miami Beach.

At the brink of Florida’s 1900s tourism boom, Esmond G. Barnhill sold his hand-colored uranium-dyed prints of dreamy Florida landscapes in St. Petersburg so game-hunting tourists could own a memento of their experience. Along the St. John’s River south of Jacksonville, Monroe says, sportsmen took riverboats and hunted at night, decimating the area’s alligator and bird populations. “People had no respect,” Monroe says. “If it moved, it was dead. But artists capitalized on tourism there.”

There are a few oddball tourism photos, Monroe says. There’s Albert Price’s beachfront images, including “Miami Beach Scene,” a Mayflower-style scene in which dozens of wealthy, bewildered-looking tourists appear to wander the shoreline in business suits and long dresses. In a series of amusing underwater stills, Bruce Mozert promotes the now-defunct Silver Springs theme park with a male and female model performing ordinary tasks, such as mowing the “lawn” (really, sea grass), grilling and lounging on beach chairs.

“Imagine seeing young, attractive models in Florida in December when you’re freezing cold in New York,” Monroe says. “Newspapers showed these images all over the world.”

Even Marion Post Wolcott, in seeking stark snapshots of Great Depression-era low-income workers for the Farm Securities Administration, could not help but train her lens on tourists. Her 1941 photo “Winter Visitors From Nearby Trailer Park” shows three women, dressed in their Sunday best, lounging next to a parked car on a Sarasota beach.

Lippman says Florida’s tourism was a strong lure for artists aiming “to capture what made Florida so exotic,” he says. “Our state gets praised as a hotbed of contemporary art because of Art Basel, but it was these early Florida naturalists, these pioneers, who made it all possible.”

“Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State” will open Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real. Admission is $8-$12. The show will close March 24. Call 561-392-2500 or go to BocaMuseum.org.

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