Decades ago, as a young college student in St. Augustine, Robert Harper saw a painting in an art gallery that he never forgot. A “wonderful old painting in bad shape,” it was sitting in the back amid a jumble of frames, Harper recalls. Even so, he could see through the grime that it was a beautiful impressionist image of children playing in a field. And that it was the work of Felix F. de Crano, a member of Henry Flagler’s art colony during St. Augustine’s Gilded Age.
Harper, now Executive Director of the Lightner Museum, didn’t buy the painting, but the artist’s name stuck with him. Little was known about de Crano at the time, but over the years Harper was able to discover “snippets” of information about him.
Now, thanks to art historian Deborah Pollack, de Crano’s art and story have been rediscovered. Through research, she learned that “de Crano was arguably the most sophisticated and versatile artist” in Flagler’s colony of painters in the late 1800s to early 1900s, which is outlined in her new book, “Felix F. de Crano, Forgotten Artist of the Flagler Art Colony.”
Well received by wealthy guests of Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, de Crano’s devoted widow continued to exhibit his paintings after his death in 1908. But by the mid 1920s he was largely forgotten. Until now.
The museum is exhibiting more than 30 pieces of his artwork, including local scenes, landscapes and portraits, through February.
Many pieces are on loan from private collectors; others are owned by the Lightner. The exhibit, which began Dec. 11, has captured the attention of national art magazines and caused a stir in art circles, Harper says. “Little was known about him before the book came out,” he says. Now, the exhibit along with Pollack’s research, “will restore de Crano’s rightful place in American art history.”
De Crano painted in various styles during his long and successful life, and the exhibit reflects that. It also provides glimpses of the romantic time and world in which he lived.
Born in France in 1839 to a wealthy family that immigrated to the United States, he married Philadelphia socialite Mary Gratz, who “evidently was very devoted to him,” Harper says. Trained in Europe, he had his main studios in Philadelphia and “was fortunate that he could paint whatever he wanted to because he was independently wealthy.” He could have led a life of leisure, but “he was disciplined, and went to work every day.”
His wife bequeathed many of his paintings to the Women’s Exchange of St. Augustine upon her death in 1938, but by then he had been forgotten, and many were sold.
As a de Crano fan, Harper is excited to now have many of his paintings for display, including the one he saw so many years ago in the art gallery. “Children in a Field” was discovered recently in a private collection a few blocks from the museum. Fully restored.