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Interpreting the Florida Dream: A Short History

Aunt Memory Adams posed for a photo - Tallahassee, Florida. ca 1900. Black & white photoprint, 9 x 7 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. 

Aunt Memory Adams posed for a photo - Tallahassee, Florida. ca 1900. Black & white photoprint, 9 x 7 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. 


The Florida Dream has long inspired artists. At its origins is the illusory myth of Ponce de León’s early-sixteenth-century search for the Fountain of Youth, a promise of eternal health, beauty, and riches. During his 1774 explorations of the southern colonies, the American naturalist, artist, and author William Bartram encountered an Edenic Florida, finding it “a blessed unviolated spot of earth, a blissful garden.” Bartram’s portrayals of Florida in his widely published travelogue greatly influenced generations of artists and poets with tales of a paradisiacal—if dangerous and foreign—land.

Florida’s tropical image, replete with luminous sunsets, palm tree-lined beaches, and jaw-snapping alligators, was cultivated to attract dreamers—tourists, settlers, and investors. Immediately after its acquisition by the U.S. in 1821, Florida was marketed through reproductions of paintings and drawings in real estate and tourist promotional publications. With few professional artists living in Florida, most of the artists hired to provide the art were brought from out-of-state. The first artist known to have grown up in Florida was the nineteenth-century landscape artist George Washington Sully, nephew of the famous portraitist Thomas Sully.

Until southern Florida was made more accessible in the late-1800s, most images of the state were based on Saint Augustine, today the oldest European settlement in North America. Landscapes were the most dominant subject and provided fodder for northerners’ imaginations. As more people settled, genre paintings that alluded to daily survival, social interactions, and the changing relationship between humans and nature became more common. Wealthy visitors bought pictures of local scenes as souvenirs. Nevertheless, serious art meant European subjects and some artists who visited the state therefore dismissed Florida as a subject for precisely those reasons.

At the same time, Florida’s role as a secessionist state meant its dream image was not reality. It is not clear what purpose images of slaves being restrained in stocks or whipped with paddles served. It is known, however, that after the Civil War, attempts to market Florida included paintings and photographs of Saint Augustine’s “slave market” that sensationalized the state’s antebellum past to attract curious northerners. The former slave Aunt Memory Adams may have taken advantage of this fascination when she sold photographs of herself (taken by an unknown photographer) at the 1893 World’s Fair.

A popular, even fashionable, 19th-century subject was the Seminoles, often depicted romantically as noble savages. In the 1870s, over 70 Plains Indians were transported to Fort Marion where they were imprisoned for several years. George Catlin’s portraits and genre paintings simultaneously empathized with the native people, depicting them with dignity, while also exploiting them as a commodity. Research indicates that much of the Seminoles’ arts such as bone and shell beaded items, hand-embroidered beadwork, woodworking, and basket weaving developed as a result of close relationships with runaway slaves in the early-19th century. The Seminole Wars and forced relocation nearly made those arts extinct.

Southeast Florida boomed with the 1896 extension of industrialist Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway south of Saint Augustine. Flagler’s decision to create a resort in part Palm Beach (then called Lake Worth) was greatly influenced by the successful Hudson River School painter Laura Woodward. Seeking a tropical respite, she had visited Saint Augustine but was disappointed that it was not the South of her dreams. Defying expectations of women artists and even of adventurous tourists, Woodward explored untamed marshes and hammocks, painting her canvases outdoors. She showed the paintings to Flagler, an important art patron, and pressed him to develop his enterprises in southern Florida.

Like Flagler, resort owners and real estate developers continued to fulfill the Florida Dream by dredging beaches and filling in swamplands in the southern part of the state. Scores of unacknowledged artists contributed prints to heavily illustrated travel pamphlets that depicted grand hotels, tourist steamboats, and tropical scenes. On the other hand, well-known artists visited and painted Florida, including landscape artists George Inness, Hermann Herzog—who painted over 200 Florida scenes, Martin Johnson Heade, and Winslow Homer.

In paintings, depictions of Florida as a dreamlike tropic changed little during the Depression’s hard times. Photography, however, injected realism to the state’s stereotypical image. Marion Post Wolcott’s Florida work for the Farm Security Administration included images of migrant farmers and contrasted images of rich and poor. Walker Evans’ photographs depicted crowded streets, decaying architecture, and Ringling Brothers circus animals.

The American Dream of the post-World War II years fed the Florida Dream. As technological developments—flood control, air conditioning, and pesticides—made both widespread industry and settlement possible, Florida’s population boomed, bringing millions of retirees and young families to South Florida. People came not only from the north but also from the south as immigrants and exiles from the Caribbean and Latin America shifted the region’s demographics, and thus, its narratives. As Florida, and particularly Miami, adopted the identity of gateway to Latin America in the late-20th century, its growing prominence not only in international business but also in art and culture increased the number, quality, and diversity of artists working throughout the state and in the region.

The artists in this exhibition offer counternarratives to the Florida Dream. Living and working in Florida, they see their surroundings not as a marketable ideal but as problematic confluences of experiences, images, and perspectives. Working in a variety of mediums—painting, sculpture, video, sound, film, collage, photography, printmaking, computer-aided drawing—they weave together themes that confront and shape life in Florida: industry and commerce, politics, history, environmental issues, familial relationships, and psychological factors, aspects that certainly exist elsewhere in the world but are brought together uniquely and intensely in Florida. By drawing from their intimate, invested knowledge, these artists create works that are critical, nuanced, and ultimately transcend local boundaries. While some of the artists work more deliberately with ideas about Florida, all fundamentally contribute to discussions about contemporary culture. For these artists, as it was for earlier artists, Florida is a subject that continues to inspire.


Erica Ando, PhD


Erica Ando is an artist and art writer. She received her BFA in Sculpture from Parsons School of Design, MFA in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art, and PhD in Comparative Studies from Florida Atlantic University. She has contributed to publications such as Art PapersBOMBArtPress, and The Miami Rail. She is Assistant Curator of Education and American Art at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach. 

Laura Woodward (American, 1834 - 1926), Palm Beach Trail, watercolor, ca. 1895. Collection of Edward and Deborah Pollack.

Laura Woodward (American, 1834 - 1926), Palm Beach Trail, watercolor, ca. 1895. Collection of Edward and Deborah Pollack.