Aristocratic Artist: Albert Herter at Palm Beach
“Well, Albert Herter simply has no right to exist. To begin with, he was born to wealth and social position; he is handsome and attractive in manner, and he has exceptional talent. You see, his career knocks the props from under those accepted saws about the impetus of poverty.” — Regina Armstrong, The Art Interchange, January, 1899. Vol.42, No. 1.
Albert Herter’s remarkable mural installed at the Gioconda & Joseph King Library represents The Society of the Four Arts’ mission and spectrum of cultural programs. Much like a richly-textured silk Aubusson tapestry, the five-panel frontispiece transforms the building’s facade into an imaginative tableau as escapist as Palm Beach’s architectural legacy based on faraway places and borrowed from distant times. Herter’s oil-on-canvas mise-en-scène illustrates the resort’s aesthetic preference for historicism and sentiment for artifice whether as a showcase for the decorative arts, a playground for pastimes, or a stage set for fashionable costume parties.
When the mural was unveiled in March 1939, Palm Beach was as detached from the mainland’s mundane interests as it was removed from their European counterpart’s occupation by Nazi Stormtroopers and Fascist Black Shirts. At The Patio, The Colony and Pelican Club, pleasure seekers were dancing the Suzy-Q and singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” convinced the nation’s economy had returned to its 1920s peak and the tide of isolationism would safeguard the resort’s dusk ’til dawn cork-popping status quo.
During his lifetime, Albert Herter’s standing as a fine artist was too often diminished, considering his extraordinary career’s remarkable scope and magnitude. According to the National Academy’s archive, Herter expressed surprise in 1943 when after almost fifty years of having his work selected for numerous Academy annuals from 1893 until 1930, the Academy, now the National Academy Museum & School, had never upgraded his Associate status to full Academician, the group’s pantheon for American artists. The Academy’s secretary, sculptor Georg Lober, explained he had once attended an exhibition of Herter’s work in 1936 at The Society of the Four Arts and was “deeply impressed by the high qualities of your portraits.” Herter never acknowledged the National Academy’s slight for his stellar accomplishments, overlooked for decades, in any of his biographical information.
“Albert Herter was a superb muralist,” remarked art advisor and appraiser David Miller. “His command and respect for the Beaux-Arts aesthetic and its neoclassical techniques were cultivated in Paris and New York and appreciated in Palm Beach, East Hampton, Newport, and Santa Barbara, however devalued they might have become during the populist Roosevelt era’s promotion of WPA-sanctioned artists who adorned buildings with hardline scenes of everyday life during the Great Depression.”
“It was not until the late 1940s that artists of Albert Herter’s aesthetic stature were again recognized for their extraordinary imagination and skill,” Miller added.
Albert Herter was once described as “a Realist with a vivid imagination” who disliked “… schools, tendencies and -isms.” He chose to remain unclassified; an artist with “no theory of art and method, having no mood or trend.” The depth and diversity of Herter’s talent as a muralist was enhanced by his concentrated skills as a gifted portrait and landscape artist, attributes that placed his work on a more refined aesthetic level than other notable muralists, among them, John La Farge, William Morris Hunt and Maxfield Parrish. However significant, Herter’s murals at The Four Arts have never garnered the same spotlight they attracted when they were first displayed 78 years ago. And, even then, described merely as “… delicate pastel tints illustrating in classic design …”
Albert Herter (1871-1950)
Having inherited his father’s artistic talent and considerable fortune, teenager Albert Herter first sharpened his precocious skills at The Art Students League of New York. Bestowed mentions in art journals and shelves of medals, he was acknowledged as the youngest artist to have his work shown at the Chicago World’s Fair. Following his 1893 marriage to artist Adele McGinnis, the couple honeymooned in Japan with their sketchbooks. Upon their return, their landscapes and portraits were judged remarkable at various shows staged by the New York Water Color Society.
From 1894 until 1898, the industrious Herters settled in Paris where Albert studied with Jean-Paul Laurens and Fernand Cormon; Adele, a pupil of Realist William-Adolphe Bouguereau, academic Gustave Courtois, and historicist Tony Robert-Fleury. Of the more than 2,400 paintings submitted one year to the Paris salon for consideration, 21-year-old Albert Herter’s The Wife of Buddha was acclaimed as “… a curious and interesting version with a steady conception of subject and honest workmanship.”
When his painting Aladdin was displayed the following year at a benefit held at New York’s Kit Kat Club, a New York Times reviewer described it as “a gorgeous representation with realistic effect.” Henry Flagler became a collector, placing a Herter portrait titled Gloria in Whitehall, his new Palm Beach mansion. In 1899 the Herters hired architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design Près Choisis on the 60-acre East Hampton tract Mrs. Herter’s parents gave them as a wedding present. The tireless artisans transformed their Georgica Pond estate, now known as The Creeks, into a showcase as artfully conceived as El Mirasol, their Santa Barbara estate. In 1913 they added a dozen bungalows to El Mirasol, converting it into a landmark hotel that became a destination for the calling-card crowd of Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
New York Tribune, June 28, 1918. In memory of his son Sgt. Everit Albert Herter’s death in 1918 on the battleground in France, Albert Herter donated a mural titled Departure of the Infantrymen, August 1914 at the Gare de L’Est (Paris) depicting families, including the artists and his wife Adele, saying good-bye to their sons as they departed for war.
A Harvard architect, Everit Herter was the first to volunteer for the World War I artists corps that designed and painted camouflage for artillery stations.
Herter’s youngest son Christian pursued public service, elected to the US House of Representatives and governor of Massachusetts before his appointment as US Secretary of State from 1959 until 1961.
After his wife Adele died in 1946, Albert Herter returned only once to Palm Beach. He moved from the East Hampton house to the Algonquin Hotel, spending time in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara where he passed away in 1950. Two years later, The Creeks was sold to artist Alfonso Ossorio who lived there until he died when it was then acquired by Ronald Perelman in 1990. The Herter Family Papers are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Santa Barbara Historical Museum has extensive records dating from 1904 of the Herters in Santa Barbara and their El Mirasol estate. Ned and Eva Stotesbury paid their friends the Herters the ultimate praise when they named their Palm Beach estate El Mirasol.
The Society of the Four Arts, 1936-2016
After more than a decade of presenting various cultural programs in member’s living rooms, Joseph Riter’s music room, Whitehall, and the Everglades Club, The Society of the Four Arts was formally organized in 1936. Headquartered on the first floor of the Mizner-designed Singer Building on Royal Palm Way, then known as the Spanish Provincial Apartments, the group was founded with 185 charter members. East Hampton’s cultural de Medici Mary (Mrs. Lorenzo E.) Woodhouse headed the arts committee, selecting Albert Herter’s painting Pink Asters as the group’s first acquisition.
In a February 1936 exhibition, Herter and his wife Adele’s portraits and landscapes were the show’s highlights. “Decorative to a high degree, exquisite in both color and composition” wrote a local art reviewer who described the show as “one of the most distinguished displays ever arranged here.” The Herters came to Palm Beach every season for the next decade, staying at Quinta Marina, the Woodhouse villa on Singer Place. Albert Herter was co-chairman of the arts committee at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. At the time, Palm Beach was abound with portrait artists that included Simon Elwes, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Charles Baskerville, Phillip Giddens, Murray Hoffman, Mary Rogers, Mary McKinnon, Sir Oswald Birley, William van Dresser, and Channing Hare.
In 1937, plans were drawn by Treanor & Fatio for a two-story gallery building across from The Four Arts’ Royal Palm Way location. The Gallery Building was initially envisioned as the centerpiece for a complex of buildings housing the group’s various interests. The new gallery building opened on January 2, 1938 with “Origin of the Modern Movement in Art,” an exhibition of 100 paintings by 53 artists, including Matisse, Picasso and Monet.
The Four Arts later abandoned plans to connect more buildings to the existing gallery. When the demolition of the Royal Poinciana Hotel prompted the Garden Club to find a new location for their popular Flower Show, they settled next to The Four Arts gallery building where they installed permanent demonstration gardens.
At the 1938 Garden Club of Palm Beach’s Flower Show, Herter was awarded a Second Place in the Breakfast Tray category, along with his co-designer Mary Woodhouse. Their entry was described as “an ornate French breakfast tray for a fat woman piled with strawberries and tomatoes in the French style.” During the 1940 season Herter designed his largest known mural for a fundraiser held at Frank Henderson’s oceanfront estate. Designed as part of a replica of a Finnish Village, the enormous 120-feet-long and 16-feet-high architectural mural depicted Helsinki’s Senate Square.
Saturday, March 18, 1939 at 5:30 pm
The Society of the Four Arts Gallery Building (now Gioconda & Joseph King Library)
The Society of the Four Arts Mural – 2016
Gioconda & Joseph King Library – Palm Beach
Singer Place – Palm Beach
Mural photography by Augustus Mayhew.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur