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a word on art

The Art Collectors of Historic Florida

Travelling to Florida began more than 5,000 years with the first Native American tribes, the Jaegas, who inhabited the area. Although control of the area changed over centuries from Spain to England and the Confederate States of America the area remained relatively undeveloped until the 20th century.


By the 1870s and 1880s, non-Native American settlers had inhabited many areas of Florida. In the vicinity of West Palm Beach and referred to the settlement as "Lake Worth Country". However, the population remained very small until the arrival of Henry Flagler, founder of Standard Oil from Ohio.


Henry visited Florida and realised its potential for tourism. For this he realised transport and hotels were important. He bought in a railroad, renamed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895 which went on to reach Biscayne Bay by 1896.


In the Biscayne area Flagler dredged a channel, built streets, instituted the first water and power systems, and financed the town's first newspaper, the Metropolis. When the town was incorporated in 1896, its citizens wanted to honour the man responsible for its growth by naming it "Flagler." He declined the honour, persuading them instead to use an old Indian name for the river the settlement was built around, Miama or Miami.


A year later, Flagler opened the exclusive Hotel Royal Palm in Miami.

Florida, this timeless corner of the tropics, allowed some of America’s most influential families to come and enjoy a relaxed life. They left behind a trail of beautiful homes and impressive history that few other communities can claim. Using the best architects, design, materials and filling them with stunning furniture and art meant the state saw some of the finest homes and interiors in America. Palm Beach island in particular has spent a century glowing in the sun.


Flagler constructed for his wife and family his own Florida home - Whitehall. When it was completed in 1902, the New York Herald proclaimed that Whitehall, Henry Flagler's Gilded Age estate in Palm Beach, was "more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world." What was to become the Flagler's winter home had more than 100,000 square feet and 75-plus rooms.

Flagler originally intended for West Palm Beach to serve as a residential area for the workers at his hotels in Palm Beach. In 1893, George W. Potter surveyed and platted the original 48 blocks of the city. West Palm Beach would be incorporated as a town on November 5, 1894, before becoming a city in 1903.


Another eminent industrialist, Ralph Norton, ran the Acme Steel Company in Chicago. He and his wife Elizabeth began travelling to Florida. They collected art to decorate their Chicago home, slowly they became interested in art for its own sake and formed a sizable collection of paintings and sculpture. In 1935, Mr. Norton semi-retired, and the couple began to spend more time in the Palm Beach. In contemplating what to do with their art collection they decided much had already been left to Chicago and so decided to found their own museum in West Palm Beach, to give South Florida its first such institution. In 1940, construction began on the Norton Gallery and School of Art located between South Olive Avenue and South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. Mr. Norton commissioned Marion Sims Wyeth of the distinguished firm of Wyeth, King & Johnson to design the Museum. The Art Deco building opened to the public on February 8, 1941. Norton continued to add to his collection until his death in 1953, and the works that he and his wife gave the Museum form the core of the institution’s collection today.


We visited the Norton Museum in 2014 and again in 2019. The gallery has changed almost out of all recognition and the domestic scale and setting have almost all gone. The new galleries allow for a huge space to exhibit, the chance to show more contemporary work and engage with larger groups of people help to engage many more with the museum.

One of our personal favourites from the original Norton collection include this garden landscape by Claude Monet from 1884, “The Gardens of the Villa Moreno Bordighera.” The Italia Geografica Illustrata published in 1881, said "the Moreno gardens are not only the most beautiful and most delightful location of the Mediterranean, but also one of the most beautiful and famous gardens of Europe." The extent of the park was impressive over 80 hectares.


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