Stories of Conquistadors and the Fountain of Youth are what lured Thomas Moran to Florida, but it was the lush landscape and harsh realities that drove his inspiration to paint the area.
Originally intended for purchase by Congress, his painting titled, Ponce De Leon in Florida, was never given a permanent home in the House of Representatives. Instead, the painting took a century long tour of the country, finding many owners and admirers along the way. And in 1996, the painting found its way home to Florida and now hangs in The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
Thomas Moran was one of America’s leading landscape painters. Though Moran was primarily known for his Mid-western landscapes, however, after visiting Florida in 1872, he became immersed in the Ponce de Leon lore of the St. Augustine area.
Intrigued by the stories of the conquistador’s fruitless search for the Fountain of Youth, Moran chose to focus on the newly popularized subject of Florida. Shortly after returning to New Jersey from Florida, Moran began work on painting the Ponce de Leon.
Ponce De Leon in Florida – Thomas Moran
The most striking aspect of the painting is the dominance of the lush tropical landscape, which nearly overwhelms the static group of figures at the paintings center. The episode depicted in the painting is of little historical significance and inaccurately depicts the native Timucuan people.
The relative peace of the figures in the painting alone goes against the majority of recorded encounters between the local inhabitants and the conquistador, most of which were characterized by graphic violence. It does however, depicts the idealized version of Ponce de Leon that was used for marketing purposes that helped to promote Florida as a popular tourist location.
Drama with Congress
Moran completed the painting in 1878, with the expectation that Congress would purchase it for the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. The primary reason for the creation of this piece was a competition between Moran and Albert Bierstadt, to claim the wall-space to either side of the podium for the Speaker of the House.
After learning of the successful sale of Emanuel Leutze’s mural Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, to the U.S. Congress for $20,000, Bierstadt produced two paintings of western landscapes, and offered them to Congress for $40,000 apiece. Congress however, was outraged at the proposed cost and the paintings were never bought.
Congress did however purchase two of Moran’s landscapes - Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), which also contributed to the conversation about designating Yellowstone as a national park, and Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74). Not long after this, Bierstadt succeeded in having his conservative history painting, Discovery of the Hudson River, installed in the wall space to the west side of the Speaker’s podium.
When Ponce de Leon in Florida was completed and offered to Congress, the Chair on the Joint Committee on the Library requested that Moran allow the piece to be hung in place of Bierstadt’s painting on a temporary basis.
Moran, confident that the piece would be viewed as comparatively better than Bierstadt’s, agreed to this placement. However, he had written in a letter that he had painted the piece specifically to be placed behind the Speaker’s podium, and that to put it anywhere else would not do it justice. He also felt the painting deserved to be there because aside from Powell’s mural in the Capitol Rotunda, there were no images of historical significance from the Southern states.
After reading his letter, Congress seemed inclined to purchase the painting, adding to the appropriations bill to fill the empty wall space to the right of the Speaker’s podium. The painting remained on the wall for two years as the property of the artist, when other artists requested the opportunity to show his work in a similar way.
This request was quietly ignored, but the Washington Evening Star caught wind of it, and wrote a scathing criticism, expressing the unfairness of the situation and stating that “a body like Congress can afford to be just, between man and man, even if it doesn’t know much about art.”
Unfortunately for Moran, Congress declined to purchase the painting, presumably due to political reasons having to do with the situation, as well as the country at large. Moran’s attempt happened to coincide with the tail end of the Reconstruction period, and there was still much contention between the North and South.
Many Republicans at the time still believed that the government should have taken harsher measures against the South, and so believed that an image depicting a Southern state would not be an appropriate choice for a government building.
After Congress declined to accept the piece, Moran attempted to sell it to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. It was then exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1879, the St. Louis Exposition in 1879, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1883. Though Moran and his admirers considered the painting to be one of his best, it was given rather mixed reviews from art critics at the time, and the painting did not initially sell.
It was not until the piece was put up at auction in 1886, that Ponce de Leon in Florida finally found a home with Henry Morrison Flagler for his Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, now Flagler College. At this time, it sold for $2,000, the highest price of any of the pieces in the sale.
From there, the painting moved to Whitehall (now The Henry M. Flagler Museum) in Palm Beach in 1901. A few years after Flagler’s death, his niece sold the painting to Moran’s friend Gustave Buek and his partner George Hazen. Buek considered the painting Moran’s “masterpiece from that period.” Moran was unaware that the painting had moved to Whitehall, and believed it had burned in the fire at the Hotel Ponce de Leon.
However, his daughter discovered it had been purchased by Buek & Hazen, and in March of 1923 had it exhibited at Macbeth Galleries in New York, but still found no immediate purchaser for public display. In late 1924 Buek & Hazen sent it to an art dealer in Kansas City who sold it for $15,000 to Jay G. Paris, a furniture dealer and rancher, who displayed the painting in the window of his furniture store. When Paris died, his widow sold the estate to the city, when it was transformed into the Ponca City Cultural Center and Indian Museum.