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Cummer: "Ponce De Leon in Florida" by Thomas Moran

Stories of Conquistadors and the Fountain of Youth is what lured Thomas Moran to Florida, but it was her lush landscape and harsh realities that drove his inspiration to paint her. 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.

Published June 16, 2012 in Weekend Edition      4 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


Thomas Moran was one of America’s leading landscape painters.  Though Moran was primarily known for his Mid-western landscapes, after visiting Florida in 1872, being immersed in the Ponce de Leon lore of the St. Augustine area, and becoming highly 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 this painting.

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 rather little historical significance, as it lacks either historical or literary precedent, 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, match up with the idealized version of Ponce de Leon that was used for marketing purposes and helped to grow Florida into 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 due to a competition between Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who were each trying 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.  They 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 up for purchase by 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, but stated 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 stated that he 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 an appropriation 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 another artists requested the opportunity to show his work in a similar way.  This request was quietly shelved, 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, who 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 and it was transformed into the Ponca City Cultural Center and Indian Museum.  The painting stayed at the Center on loan until Paris’s widow sold it to James Khoury, an art gallery owner from Amarillo, Texas, who sold it to Luther D. Dulaney, a trustee of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, where it was donated in 1972.

This iconic Florida painting by Thomas Moran came to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens on October 23, 1996.  The purchase of the painting was sponsored by The Schultz Family and (then) Barnett Bank, from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.  The idea for the purchase was spurred by Samuel H. Vickers, who at the time was a Museum Trustee.  Vickers had wanted to install the piece in his home, but after seeing the scale and historical significance of the piece, decided that it would be a disservice to the people of Florida to not have it available to the public for viewing.  

Written by Amber Sesnick,
Visitor Services & Social Media Coordinator at

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

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June 16, 2012, 02:58:04 PM
Cool! I'd never seen this before.


June 16, 2012, 04:18:38 PM

Congress was buying art at upwards of $10k in the late 1800s. Moran, specifically sold two paintings to congress for $10k each in 1873. That's a lot of money by todays standards. A couple of inflation calculators equate that to having the same buying power as $230k dollars in 2012. Kind of, i can't find a calculator that will take me back any further than 1914. If the adjustments for inflation are accurate Moran made close to half a million for two paintings.

His connection to congress was made through this work on the yellowstone region.
Thomas Moran's vision of the Western landscape was critical to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In 1871 Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey, invited Moran, at the request of American financier Jay Cooke, to join Hayden and his expedition team into the unknown Yellowstone region. Hayden was just to embark on his arduous journey when he received a letter from Cooke presenting Moran as.. "an artist of Philadelphia of rare genius.."[5] Funded by Cooke (the director of the Northern Pacific Railroad), and Scribner's Monthly, a new illustrated magazine, Moran agreed to join the survey team of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 in their exploration of the Yellowstone region. During forty days in the wilderness area, Moran visually documented over 30 different sites and produced a diary of the expedition's progress and daily activities. His sketches, along with photographs produced by survey member William Henry Jackson, captured the nation's attention and helped inspire Congress to establish the Yellowstone region as the first national park in 1872. The paintings of Moran along with the photographs of Jackson revealed the scale and splendor of the beautiful Yellowstone region more than written or oral descriptions, persuading President Grant and the US Congress that Yellowstone was to be preserved. Naturally proud of the role he played, Moran adopted a new signature: T-Y-M, Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran thereafter. From Wikipedia

Congress was buying art and they were paying good money for it...


June 17, 2012, 01:47:50 PM
I love this painting, but think the portrait of andrew jackson at the Cumner is still the most powerful


June 20, 2012, 12:02:52 PM
@civil42806 - Perhaps we can do a piece on the Andrew Jackson painting.  It has a wonderful story behind it as well, and we have another piece in the collection that relates to it.  Keep an eye out for that article. 

@TheCat - Thank you so much for the additional information about Moran's connection to the Yellowstone region. :)
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