JANE PETERSON (1876–1965)
Palm Grove, about 1916–20
Gouache on paper, 18 x 24 in.
EXHIBITED: Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1968, Jane Peterson: Paintings, 1910–1920, no. 21
EX COLL.: the artist; to her estate, 1965–68; to [Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1968]; to private collection, 1968–2015
Jane Peterson “discovered” Palm Beach, Florida, during the War years, when her customary travel to Europe was curtailed. Palm Beach proved an ideal destination. Exotic and colorful, with lush tropical foliage, it was accessible by train from New York. Unlike her summer locales, the Florida resort offered sunshine during the months of New York winter when it attracted a select community of genteel and well-to-do northeasterners. Occupying a 16-mile-long barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of southern Florida, Palm Beach was the creation of one man, Standard Oil partner Henry Morrison Flagler (1830–1913). Flagler first came to Florida in 1879, recommended by doctors for his invalid wife. After her death in 1881, Flagler remarried and returned to Florida to honeymoon. Visiting St. Augustine, he found what he regarded as a veritable paradise, but without adequate hotels or reasonable rail connections. Flagler stepped back from his active involvement in Standard Oil, and from the mid-1880s until his death in 1913, made the development of the Atlantic coast of Florida his project. He initiated the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway, which he ultimately extended to Key West, 128 miles off the southwest coast of Florida. He built luxury hotels as well as a palatial estate for himself, and encouraged the beginnings of a civic infrastructure.
Peterson arrived in Palm Beach in an interim period, after Flagler’s death, but before the fabled real estate boom of the early 1920s which saw the construction of extravagant estates. In Peterson’s early years in Palm Beach, the nucleus of wealth was already there, but so was the natural, wild beauty which had first attracted Flagler. Peterson’s visits to Palm Beach are not well-documented. We know that she was there by the winter of 1916–17, evidenced by the fact that she showed a Palm Beach watercolor in February 1917 at the 50th Annual Watercolor Exhibition of the American Water Color Society. That work, owned by Alexander Hudnut, was titled Palm Beach (no. 230), unfortunately too generic a description to identify it today. In 1918, Peterson was instrumental in organizing the Palm Beach Country Art Club, forerunner of the present Palm Beach Art League. Over the course of years Peterson traveled around Florida, again evidenced by pictures she painted of a variety of locations in the State. She continued to visit in winter during the 1930s and ‘40s. Her Palm Beach pictures reveal a fascination with the namesake palm trees. She often painted them simply and relatively monochromatically, studies of trees scattered along the beaches, swaying in high winds, or punctuating the built landscape. This gouache is one of her most ambitious Palm Beach efforts, a colorful rendering of a Palm Grove whose dappled sun and shade has attracted two groups of fashionably dressed women. The subject allows Peterson full rein to explore and apply the sum of her European color education—from Sorolla to the Post-Impressionists and Nabis. The ladies lounge under trees whose fronds present a riot of colors never seen in nature. The bright red of the ladies’ capelets echoes in the three red figures at the top of the foreground tree, likely parrots, Florida birds who also fascinated the artist. The use of gouache as a medium, that is, opaque watercolor, allowed Peterson the spontaneity of watercolor with the depth of color of oil. The choice of medium also reflects Peterson’s intense involvement with watercolor as a watercolor instructor at the Art Students League in the 1910s. Though Peterson only sporadically signed and hardly ever dated her works, based on style and subject matter, the work has been dated between 1916 and 1920.