Henry Flagler reimagined: Gilded Age Palm Beach gets colorful modern spin at LWB art exhibit
Updated: Jan 17
IMAGINE HENRY FLAGLER in Palm Beach today decked out in a striped Maus & Hoffman blazer or wearing a top hat with Lilly Pulitzer patterns.
How about a 19th-century locomotive steaming across Flagler’s railroad past Phillips Point, The Bristol and other modern-day West Palm Beach landmarks on its way to old Palm Beach.
That’s the bold vision of artist Serge Strosberg in Veni, Vidi, Vici, a series of allegorical paintings of vintage Palm Beach Gilded Age photographs reimagined as colorful modern subjects.
“It’s going to be a really fun exhibit,’’ said Jessica Ransom, director of artists services at the Cultural Council. Strosberg “is sort of taking all of these powerful people who came to Palm Beach and modernized it, saying, ‘Here is what would happen if Flagler was alive today. This is what he would be wearing.’’’
Flagler, the Standard Oil co-founder who built railroads that made wild 19th-century Florida accessible to millions, isn’t the only star of the show.
The five colorful interpretations include vintage photographs of the Vanderbilts and other members of late 19th century and early 20th century Palm Beach society, as well as a Caesar Augustus bust that was part of Flagler’s collection at Whitehall, the name of his estate before it was turned into a museum.
Next to each painting will be a copy of the corresponding photograph.
“It's a great new way of bringing those images that we all know back to life,’’ said Palm Beach historian Rick Rose, who wrote cutlines for the exhibit. “The photos are certainly interesting themselves, but I just love the fact he's bringing color in there.’’
Inspiration for the exhibit struck on a visit to the Flagler Museum on Palm Beach, just before the pandemic, when Strosberg saw an iconic black-and-white photograph of a younger Flagler, circa 1850s, wearing a top hat.
“I wondered, What would he look like today? I bet he would be a cool-looking guy,’’ Strosberg said.
He made an initial sketch and added Lilly Pulitzer colors, a piece Ransom happened to see on a visit to Strosberg’s studio above Antique Row in West Palm Beach.
Serge Strosberg in his studio painting an undated photo of a brunch in a coconut grove next to the Royal Poinciana Hotel and Whitehall.
“When I saw that image, I thought, ‘This is brilliant! What a great idea!’’’ she recalled.
In a conversation with Ransom, Strosberg suggested a series of paintings paying modern, colorful homage to Flagler and Gilded Age Palm Beach. Ransom got in touch with the Flagler Museum, which offered images of vintage photographs.
“Serge took it and just ran with it,’’ she said.
Each painting is bordered by a custom-made frieze with train tracks, emphasizing Flagler’s monumental role in turning Old Florida into the modern destination it is today.
While the exhibit offers a fresh look at familiar Gilded Age photographs, it will also introduce Flagler to younger audiences who may not be aware that “he’s the guy who opened the entire east coast of Florida for development,’’ said Rose.
“The legacy of Henry Flagler is still alive and well today,’’ Rose said. “You think about Brightline alone; those are the tracks Flagler built. The water we drink comes from the reservoir and pumping system Flagler’s engineers built in West Palm Beach. I think it's fascinating to reexamine those images that we all know but to bring them to life a little bit in an historical context.’’
Michael Maus of Maus & Hoffman on Worth Avenue modeled the striped blazer that Henry Flagler wears in the Serge Strosberg painting.
The title of the exhibit, Julius Caesar’s Latin expression “I came, I saw, I conquered,’’ plays off the role Flagler, the Vanderbilts and others in the Gilded Age played in modernizing Palm Beach.
“I'm paying tribute to the vision of what these guys did,’’ Strosberg said.
He chose “Rubicon” as the title of his painting of the locomotive crossing the Intracoastal Waterway into Palm Beach, alluding to Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon River.
“Bringing a train in 1896 to the Florida swamps is the equivalent of Elon Musk sending a rocket to Mars,’’ he said. “It must have been so inhospitable, so something crazy for that time and it was really an achievement.’’
For the older Flagler most of us know, Strosberg reinterpreted a famous portrait by adding a striped blazer. To get the detail right, he went to Maus & Hoffman on Worth Avenue and took smartphone photos of Michael Maus modeling the striped blazer that Flagler wears in the painting.
“If you visit Whitehall, there are so many rooms and they all have different colors, so (Flagler) must've been someone who was exuberant, who loved color,’’ Strosberg said.
“I can just picture him in Palm Beach in 2022. He would wear something colorful, not boring.’’
The Vanderbilt family in 1896 in front of a train next to the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach.
Of all the paintings, perhaps none is as fresh and bold as “Young Flagler,” the interpretation of the 20-something man in “modern attire inspired by the iconic designer Lilly Pulitzer, conveying the image of a quintessential Palm Beach dandy,’’ as Rose writes in the cutline.
“The perspective of the subject as a young man is a complete contrast to how most Floridians imagine Mr. Flagler, who was in his 60s by the time he had established himself as the important, towering figure in Florida history.’’
Strosberg, who isn’t shy about exploring unconventional approaches, said he hopes to expand the series to include interpretations of other iconic vintage Palm Beach photographs.
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County has expressed an interest in hosting an expanded exhibit in the spring of 2023.
“I tried to take it to an interesting place starting from these old black and whites,’’ Strosberg said.
The exhibition is free. It can be seen Thursdays through Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. at the Cultural Council gallery at 601 Lake Ave. in downtown Lake Worth Beach.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.