With a successful $5.9 million bid for a painting of a Florida sunset, founders of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona set an auction record Wednesday at Sotheby’s in New York.
The purchase allows the museum to reunite two lushly beautiful icons of American art that were commissioned in 1887 by a founder of Standard Oil Co. but have been separated for decades.
“The Great Florida Sunset” was painted by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), a Pennsylvania-born artist famous for his luminous landscapes and seascapes of the American tropics, especially Florida, where he spent the last two decades of his life. The picture’s price tag is more than double the previous auction record for the artist.
The landmark purchase comes just a year after the museum’s founders and chief backers, Mary Burrichter and her husband, Fastenal millionaire Bob Kierlin, made waves by buying one of only two surviving versions of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Emanuel Leutze’s popular image of the nation’s founding father leading a ragtag bunch of patriots.
At 8 feet wide and more than 4 feet tall, “Florida Sunset” is the largest picture Heade ever made. The Winona museum’s founders also own a slightly smaller companion painting by Heade, “View from Fern-Tree Walk, Jamaica,” that is now on view at the museum.
With their mirror-like finishes and opalescent glow, Heade’s paintings present the American tropics as an unspoiled paradise. In “Florida,” a moody coral sunset casts a luminous glow over a waterscape dotted with white lilies and exotic birds. In “Jamaica,” moss-covered trees, giant ferns and other lush vegetation frame an unruffled bay on a tranquil day.
“These great sunset paintings by Heade and other artists of the time were all tied up in Christian theology,” said John Driscoll, a New York art dealer and adviser to the Winona collectors. “His ‘Sunset’ painting was a benediction of a kind on the notion of an American Eden, the idea that the North American continent was a gift from God for people to come and build a new culture and a new civilization.”
Commissioned by developer
Both pictures originally were commissioned by the American industrialist Henry Morrison Flagler, who is credited with developing Florida into a resort destination in the late 19th century. The pictures hung for decades in Flagler’s flagship Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., but were eventually separated and sold to private collectors.
“Florida Sunset” was most recently owned by the late Alfred Taubman, a Detroit-based shopping mall developer who also owned Sotheby’s. He was indicted on a charge of price fixing with rival auction house Christie’s, paid a $7.5 million fine and served 10 months in prison in 2002.
Burrichter and Kierlin bought the “Jamaica” painting in 2013 from Detroit manufacturer Richard Manoogian, who frequently loaned it to museums around the world.
“Florida Sunset” will probably be hung in the Winona museum next spring, after it is cleaned and possibly reframed.
Burrichter and Kierlin typically purchase art on behalf of the museum, which they founded in 2006. They retain ownership of the paintings but lend them to the museum, which has expanded three times in recent years to accommodate their ever-growing collection of water-themed art.