I Went to the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville

An Amethyst Hummingbird with a White Orchid, by Martin Johnson Heade

by Brooke Chilvers

This wasn’t the first time I’ve traveled far to see a painting—only to discover, when I got there, that it wasn’t on display.

What a surprise, years ago, that not a single Carl Rungius painting  from the Glenbow Museum’s book on the artist is included in the museum’s permanent collection, which I visited in the dead of a Calgary winter.  And when I finally made it to Antwerp to see the Dutch Old Masters, its Museum of Fine Arts was closed for a 10-year renovation!  

This time, it was the painting, An Amethyst Hummingbird with a White Orchid (1870), by Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), that I’d caught glimpses of on the Cummer Museum website.  Like so much in life, “You should have been here yesterday”—or rather, in 2020, for their exhibition entitled Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church and Our Contemporary Moment, whatever that means.  Apparently, my Holy Grail of the Cummer’s holdings has been resting in the archives ever since.  There isn’t even a postcard of the beautiful painting in their gift shop, although reproductions are widely offered online. 

Waiting for a Bite, Winslow Homer (oil on canvas)

This was doubly surprising and disappointing because An Amethyst Hummingbird with a White Orchid was one of the original 60 paintings bequeathed by Ninah Cummer herself from the collection she and her husband, lumber magnate Arthur Cummer, started during their second honeymoon in New York, in 1906.  After Arthur died in 1946, their original riverside home was razed and replaced by the museum and gardens, which opened to the public in 1961.

Brooke Chilvers introduces Waiting for a Bite, Winslow Homer (oil on canvas)

Heade had been inspired by Frederic Church’s monumental 1859 painting Heart of the Andes to travel himself to the tropics to paint its flora and fauna.  In 1863, he visited Brazil; in 1866, Nicaragua; and in 1870, he made it to Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica, all which led him to paint flowers.  Only in 1871 did he start painting flowers and hummingbirds together, a subject he pursued in many variations right up to his death. 

Alas, Heade’s dreamt-of book, The Gems of Brazil, was never published, despite his having Florida railroad magnate and real estate developer Henry Flagler as his influential mentor.  In fact, after marrying at age sixty-four for the first time in 1883, when Flagler offered him a studio to work from in his new and elegant Hotel Ponce de León (now Flagler College), he moved to St. Augustine and painted local landscapes.

Waiting for a Bite, Winslow Homer, wood engraving

The only cure for disappointment is glee, and I still found it at the Cummer.  Not just in the generous cocktails and appetizing bites in the museum’s outdoor patio restaurant, but among the gentle masterpieces that, more effectively than Heade’s, had defended their wall space against Andy Warhol prints of Mao Zedong.

First, I found Winslow Homer’s small 1874 oil on canvas, Waiting for a Bite, of two boys fishing from a fallen tree trunk in a flattened landscape.  Further investigation showed it was also the basis for the very similar wood engraving for the August 22, 1874, Harper’s Weekly, where three boys (instead of two) are now fishing distinctly Adirondack waters. In both versions, Homer seizes the character of each setting, its distinct colors and emotional notes arising from the light cast by the sky on reflective waters.

Homer painted some 100 angling works.  Over time, they evolved in composition, tone, and palette—each development inspired by different waters fished at different stages of his life. Waiting for a Bite feels like he was passing on the lesson of patience to the next generation of anglers.

Ponce de Leon in Florida, by Thomas Moran

No visitor to the Cummer can miss the enormous Ponce de Leon in Florida, by Thomas Moran (1837–1926), depicting the encounter between the conquistador and the Timucuan natives (unfortunately wearing the headdresses of Moran’s Western Plains Indians). Its landscape of palms, palmettos, and Spanish moss-covered live oaks, was painted in 1877-78, after Moran’s 1872 visit to St. Augustine and the St. John’s River.

Brooke Chilvers introduces Ponce de Leon in Florida, by Thomas Moran

It’s hard to imagine how far this tropical setting was from Moran’s birthplace of industrialized Lancashire, England, from which his parents emigrated to Philadelphia.  Thomas’s apprenticeship to a wood-engraving firm, at age sixteen, set him on his path.

Moran painted Ponce de Leon in Florida in the vein of prestigious historical painting, aspiring it to be purchased and hung in the House of Representatives, and lead to further important commissions.  Alas—for him at least—his plan failed.  Instead, the luxuriant Cummer Museum Gardens, home to a 200-year-old live oak tree with a 150-foot branch spread, feel like the painting’s natural home.

Two 17th century Antwerp artists, Peter Thijs and Pieter Boel, collaborated on the museum’s startling life-size Huntsman with His Dog and Game, the kind of work I never thought I’d discover in Florida.  Notice the assortment of hunting dogs the sportsman keeps to pursue his game bag of swan and hare.  Both artists were members of the St. Luke’s Guild in a period when it was not unknown for one artist to paint the figures and the other the landscape.  Although Thijs is mostly known for his dramatic religious paintings, he also collaborated with animal painters, including Flemish Baroque painter Jan Fyt, who was Boel’s teacher and influenced his style.

If the museum gift shop and patio dining were delightful surprises, I find the museum’s website to be unsatisfying.  Rather than featuring exciting images and descriptions of the art in the museum’s vastly different collections—from The Florida Collection to the rare and precious Early Meissen Porcelain—they simply list the names of the artists and their works. I’m also confused about the difference between the museum’s “Experience” and “Discover” links.  Ditto for “Adaptive Art” and “Virtual Resources,” where I eventually chanced upon several good YouTube discussions and accidently found a Cummer Museum Blog on the Huntsman with His Dog and Game painting, although I couldn’t locate it on the museum’s website. 

With many more exciting works still to see with my own eyes, I will certainly return to the Cummer.  Hopefully next time, “my” Heade painting will be on display.