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Of Florida, For Florida

Photo: Randy Batista

Native Floridians Sam and Robbie Vickers spent 40 years amassing their formidable collection of Florida art. Until they gifted it to the Harn Museum in December 2020, the only way for art lovers to see it was by personal invite to the couple’s home on the banks of the St. John’s River. They are shown here in one of their art-filled rooms in January 2021.

Over decades, Sam and Roberta Vickers amassed a stunning collection that captures the sunshine and shadows of the state’s past. Now, they have given that collection — over 1,200 pieces, some by the greatest names in American art — to the University of Florida.

Awestruck. Weak at the knees.

That is how people have felt viewing The Florida Art Collection, Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers, for the first time.

With more than a thousand Florida-based works of art dating from the early 1800s to the mid-20th century, the collection includes masterpieces by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Moran and Martin Johnson Heade — some of the greatest names in American art — who made their way to Florida when much of it was pristine wilderness.

For 40 years, Jacksonville collectors Sam and Roberta (“Robbie”) Vickers sought out “Florida art with soul,” as one admirer puts it, acquiring one-of-a-kind works that celebrate the unique environment, history and struggles of America’s 27th state. Occasionally, the couple loaned their prized works to leading museums around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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The Florida Collection includes works by the African American artists known as The Highwaymen as well as their teacher, A. E. Backus (1906-1990), an artist from Fort Pierce. This undated work, Road Through the Orange Grove, showcases Backus’s realistic, yet expressive, style of landscape painting.

But for most art lovers, the only way to view the collection was by personal invite to the couple’s two-story French Provincial home on the St. Johns River, long considered the “high temple of Florida art,” wrote reporter Jeff Klinkenberg (BSJ ’71). There, superb paintings lined cerulean-blue walls from floor to ceiling, and Sam and Robbie regaled visitors such as Gov. Bob Graham and musician Jimmy Buffett with tales of stalking treasures in dusty flea markets and exclusive art galleries.

(One Orlando collector nearly sobbed when he finally handed over a beloved Moran painting, a touching incident that Sam likes to recount.)

Now, thanks to an extraordinary donation from Sam and Robbie, their once-private collection has found its public “forever home” at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida. In late January 2021, Harn staff excitedly welcomed a truckload more than 1,200 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings — the largest single art collection ever gifted to the university — and Chief Curator Dulce Román quickly organized an exhibition of must-sees.

The inaugural exhibition, A Florida Legacy: Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers, opened Feb. 26 and runs through Aug. 1, 2021. The Harn’s free admission policy means highlights from this fabled collection can now be seen by everyone.

Art lovers and proud Gators can marvel up close at Robert J. Curtis’s iconic 1838 portrait of Seminole leader Osceola; Winslow Homer’s action-filled Foul Hooked Black Bass; John Singer Sargent’s masterful Palm Thicket; Martin Johnson Heade’s rare Oleanders; Ralston Crawford’s soaring Overseas Highway #2; and Jane Peterson’s vibrant gouache, Toucans, Parrot Jungle — to name just a few of the delights on view.

Painted between 1885 and 1890, Tropical Sunset: Florida Marsh is a glorious example of Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)’s luminous, finely observed style. Note how the rose-toned hues of the sunset illuminate cows grazing by the lake and even the individual fronds of a palmetto.

“So many of the landscapes capture shimmering light effects on water, dramatic cloud formations and majestic sunsets,” noted Román. “I’m absolutely thrilled to work with and study this incredible collection for years to come.”

Leaders at UF and the Harn are still reveling in the pleasures of owning and caring for these magnificent works of art.

“We are very thankful to Sam and Robbie Vickers for their generosity,” said Harn Director Lee Anne Chesterfield in January. “This is a transformational gift for the university and the Harn that will increase the museum’s Modern Art Collection by more than double.”

“The Vickers Collection is unique in its power to convey both the exquisite natural beauty and the rich history of people in Florida — the ruggedness and grandeur of its landscapes and the highs and lows of its human history through the centuries,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “We are thrilled to have the privilege of sharing it with all visitors to the Harn Museum.”

In the days leading to the opening of the inaugural exhibition, the museum’s social media pages buzzed with anticipation from excited fans.

“SARGENT?! I must devour with my eyes,” posted Jeannene Mironack (BSJ ’82). “Thank you to the Vickers!”

“I can’t wait to visit!” wrote Allison Brown.

“What a treasure of a gift to the Harn and all of us,” added Ilene Silverman (BSAC ’85).

Adventures in a New Eden

Anyone who has ever spent time in the Sunshine State will immediately connect with the works in the Vickers Collection, said American art specialist Debra Force, a New York gallery owner and a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.”

“Sam Vickers really wanted to capture the history of Florida, as seen through the eyes of exceptional artists,” said Force. “Quality shines throughout the collection, whether the artist is a household name like Winslow Homer or Thomas Moran, or someone fewer people have heard of, like [Hudson River School painter] Maria a’Becket.”

While visiting his friends, the brothers Charles and James Deering, in Miami in 1917, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted a number of brilliant watercolors at James’ elaborate Italianate villa, Vizcaya. In this work, Palm Thicket, Sargent expertly captures the sharp-edged fronds of the saw palmettos and the play of sunlight and shadow.

“A lot of the scenes are now parking lots or covered up with big buildings,” said donor Sam Vickers, who is also an amateur historian. “You see the history of our great state as it was built over the years.”

The collection will especially appeal to those familiar with the topography and biota of specific regions of Florida, said Gary Libby, director emeritus of Daytona Beach’s Museum of Arts and Sciences and editor of the 1996 book “Celebrating Florida: Works from the Vickers Collection.”

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Florida was being touted as a new Eden, and it drew curious, classically trained artists who had made their reputations depicting grand views in Europe and the American West. Sailing along the St. Johns River or strolling the white-sand beaches of St. Augustine, celebrated painters such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, William Morris Hunt and Christian Eisele found a brave new world that was short on heroic vistas but big on atmosphere, light and exotic wildlife.

Skunk cabbages, saw palmetto, snowy egrets, oleanders and Cattleya orchids: the artists painted these Florida species with the same attention to detail they had lavished on the Doge’s Palace in Venice or the Grand Canyon.

And the artists were experts at tucking references to history, the Bible and Greco-Roman mythology into their works.

Known primarily for his stained-glass artistry, Louise Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was also an accomplished painter. His Castillo de San Marcos depicts the 17th-century Spanish stone fortress in St. Augustine in a post-Impressionist style, painted in 1883, three years after his only visit to that city.

Robbie Vickers’ favorite painting, Fort George Island (1880), by Thomas Moran, appears at first glance to simply depict a brilliant sunset on a deserted beach. Closer inspection reveals a shipwreck in the distance. And it’s not any old ship, specialists note.

“Moran is referring, of course, to Ponce de León and the Spanish Conquest of Florida,” Libby said.

Even a “simple” scene of North Central Florida scrubland can turn out to be a cautionary tale on what is gained versus lost from human occupation of the landscape — Eden before and after the Fall.

“You see this beautiful wooded landscape, but in one corner, someone has chopped down a tree,” Libby said of depictions of Alachua County by German-born artist Herman Herzog. “You see just the stump, a hint of destruction. The painter is warning you in this painting.”

From Homosassa to Osceola

Other works capture Florida in all its fun and outdoor exuberance — bathers lounging on the beach, spectators cheering on racehorses at Hialeah, canoers paddling the Everglades and tarpon fishers hooking a big one.

There is even a detailed painting of a 1950s Florida trailer park, by Saturday Evening Post illustrator Stevan Dohanos. Trailer Park Garden shows a gleaming Airstream and two middle-aged snowbirds enjoying their sunny slice of heaven, complete with fishing pole and tackle, tiny shell-bordered garden and kitschy pink flamingo ornament.

“That painting makes you feel like you are right there,” said Force. “It really captures what Floridians and tourists were doing at the time — and still do.”

Trailer Park Garden (1951, oil on Masonite), by Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994), first appeared on the Feb. 2, 1952, cover of Saturday Evening Post, a publication for which he created 125 covers during his career. This humorous work depicts a busy corner of of a trailer park in Bradenton, Florida.

Winslow Homer was an avid fly fisher, and it was on a 1904 trip to Homosassa Springs that he painted what many consider his greatest Florida watercolor, Foul Hooked Black Bass. Homer places the huge fish in the foreground as it grabs the hook, reeling the viewer into the bass’s life-and-death struggle.

South of Homosassa, many artists converged in Sarasota, the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A memorable 1940s oil painting by Ashcan School artist Everett Shinn shows trapeze artists performing high overhead a roomful of diners at the Ringling Hotel, the elegant guests gaping upward in awe.

“I guess it was fine if nobody fell in your soup,” Robbie Vickers joked earlier this year.

Another outstanding circus-themed work is Jerry Farnsworth’s moody portrait of Madame Kovar, the Ringling’s legendary lion tamer. Known for her fearlessness, Kovar climbed in the cage without her whip on Dec. 21, 1949, when she was promptly mauled to death in front of her two children.

And then there are the works related to the three Seminole Wars (1816-1858). These include 19th-century sketches of Seminole people by George Catlin, and John Roger Vinton’s 1843 oil painting, The Ruins of the Sugar House, which depicts a Seminole warrior surveying the smoking ruins of a plantation destroyed by indigenous forces.

Mounting the inaugural A Florida Legacy exhibition was a labor of love by Harn staff and curators. Here, Harn staff members work together in mid-February to hang works prior to the much-anticipated opening on Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Aaron Daye

Of special note is Robert J. Curtis’s Portrait of Osceola, painted in 1838, just after the Seminole leader was imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, in South Carolina.

The Charleston Mercury noted of the painting that year: “[Curtis] has given, with great fidelity, the intelligent and melancholy countenance which distinguishes the chief.”

A Magnet for Research

With a cornucopia of superb Florida art now under its roof, the Harn will have to rotate selections seasonally to enable the public to see it all. Future plans include building a new wing with galleries, a print study and a conservation center to display and study the Vickers Collection.

But that doesn’t mean nonexhibited art will languish in storage until then.

Already, the Harn’s curator of academic programs, Eric Segal, is creating a course based on the collection, titled Florida in the Frame, which will be part of the UF Honors (Un)Common Reads program starting this fall. Guest speakers will include biologist Jack Putz, art historian Melissa Hyde and other UF faculty.

“Many Gators, not just those majoring in art history, will end up becoming familiar with the Vickers Collection,” Chesterfield predicts.

“We currently have three interns researching and working with the collection and are excited to engage more from all disciplines,” she added. “For instance, some of the landscapes illustrate parts of Florida that have since been developed. … I can easily see a student in one of the scientific disciplines studying these artworks to better understand the natural history of Florida.”

Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, artist William McCloskey (1859-1841) produced paintings of wrapped citrus that have become highly collectible, showcasing his dazzling trompe l’oeil skills as well as Florida’s burgeoning citrus industry. Florida Lemons (1889) epitomizes McCloskey’s delicate execution and perfect realism.

Art specialists from near and far will want to explore the Vickers Collection, museum leaders anticipate. And that activity will only bring the Harn greater recognition.

“One of our strategic goals for the museum is to raise awareness of all our permanent collections,” said Chesterfield. “There is a plan now to digitize nearly 90% of our entire permanent collection, including the 1,200 new works in the Vickers Collection. This will bring international attention to the Harn and the collection, and I envision scholars and art lovers coming from all over the world to see the art in person.”

Those opportunities are exactly why Sam and Robbie Vickers chose to gift their collection to the state’s flagship university.

“Our collection will be studied and enjoyed for decades to come,” said Sam proudly. “That means a lot to us.”

The Original Florida Art Collectors: Sam and Robbie Vickers

He is a successful businessman and amateur historian with a hawk-like eye for detail. She is a singer and painter with a flawless color sense and a lively wit.

Together they are Samuel and Roberta Vickers, better known as Sam and Robbie — the dynamic art-collecting duo from Jacksonville whose recent gift of 1,200 Florida works to the Harn Museum of Art has sent ripples through the art world.

Recognized as the first serious collectors of Florida art, Sam and Robbie are as fascinating as the works of art they meticulously amassed over 40 years while raising two children (they now have six grandchildren).

Sam was born in Miami in 1937; Robbie said hello to the world three years later in Palm Beach. The two met while high school students in Georgia, and when Sam was offered a football scholarship to the University of South Carolina, Robbie soon followed. There, she was a cheerleader; Sam was the Gamecocks’ quarterback. The pair married in 1957, back when “Florida art” often meant driftwood knickknacks and acrylic mermaids dabbed on black velvet.

Sam became CEO of a specialty packaging company in Jacksonville, and the couple enjoyed traveling around the world on his business ventures. But in the early 1980s, marvels closer to home caught their eye — little-known paintings of Florida by great 19th- and 20th-century artists. That sent them on hunts through ramshackle yard sales, hidden antique stores and major art galleries, whose owners began referring to Sam and Robbie Vickers as “the” collectors of Florida art.

“We’ve had some wonderful experiences along the way as we’ve acquired pictures,” said Sam.

Slowly and surely, they filled their house with sublime art, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when the state asked them to loan pieces for a traveling exhibit celebrating Florida’s sesquicentennial, that the Vickers realized their pastime was more than a hobby.

Curator Gary Libby’s reaction, when he walked into their art-filled home to choose among its treasures, cemented the couple’s understanding that they were serious collectors, Sam remembered: “When [Libby] walked in the front door, he stopped and said, ‘This is not to select some paintings for the [sesquicentennial] collection, this IS the collection.’”

Since then, the Vickers Collection has grown from 200 to 1,200 works with a distinct point of view. Although neither Sam nor Robbie formally studied art appreciation, they quickly trained their eyes to spot a masterpiece, specialists say, seeking out art that is intellectually challenging and captures the soul of its subject matter.

Finding a permanent home for their beloved collection took years of visiting institutions around the state. What persuaded the couple to choose UF, in the end, was the university’s commitment to making the collection central to research and teaching efforts, as well as regular exhibitions at the Harn.

“The educational part of it is very important to us,” Robbie said of the couple’s gift. “Even though we know a great deal about the artists and the works of art, students and faculty and scholars can research and find out more. We wanted [the collection] to go to a place where that’s going to happen.”

“It was pretty clear early on the UF would be the greatest home for the collection,” Sam agreed.