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Florida has been subject of pictures for centuries

Exotic Florida and its flora, fauna and inhabitants have fascinated artists since 1562.

Jacques LeMoyne, who came to Florida on May 1, 1562, with French explorer Jean Ribault, was the first known European artist on Florida shores. Of course, anonymous Native American artists had existed here for centuries.

Lemoyne made 42 drawings of Timucuan Indians living near the mouth of the St. Johns River. They are considered to be the best representations we have of the way indigenous Indians of east Florida looked during the 16th century.

Encouraged by the 1791 observations of naturalist William Bertram, artists such as John James Audubon and George Catlin came to Florida in the 1830s _ Audubon to paint the birds of South Florida and Catlin to draw and paint Indians.

Audubon bad-mouthed the St. Augustine region as unlivable before he went to the Keys in 1832 to shoot the tropical birds with his double-barreled shotgun. He killed them before painting them. Catlin arrived in 1835 to document Indian chiefs as he did elsewhere in America.

Florida became a prime attraction for artists in the late 1880s and '90s. George Inness Sr. began spending winters in Tarpon Springs, eventually building a large home and studio. His son and biographer, George Inness Jr., also worked in Tarpon Springs. The largest single collection of the son's paintings is on display in the Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs.

The art of the senior Inness is generally regarded to be among the greatest works of American landscape artists. Though his works in Florida explored the nuances of light, he considered Impressionism a "humbug" and a "fad," according to his son.

In Inness' words, Impressionists present us with "the original pancake of visual imbecility, the childlike naivete of unexpressed vision."

Benjamin Constant, a French portraitist, said that if Inness' works had been signed by Turner, Millet or Corot they would have commanded vast sums.

Two of the elder Inness' best Florida paintings are titled Early Morning, Tarpon Springs and Florida Morning, the last completed in 1894 just before he left for Scotland, where he died in that year.

Throughout the 1880s and '90s artists kept coming to Florida, where as one visitor wrote, "the rest of the country has found its Persian Gardens." They included Thomas Moran, a landscape painter of the Hudson River school, and Martin Johnson Heade, who settled in St. Augustine.

One artist, however, thought Florida was just a land of scrub palmetto and grubby cowboys. Sent here in 1895 on an illustration assignment for Harper's Weekly, Frederic Remington could scarcely conceal his contempt for the place in the drawings he made to accompany an article called "Cracker Cowboys in Florida." Yet the same man went on to enshrine the horsemen of the Wild West and their steeds.

According to Helen A. Cooper, the incomparable Winslow Homer made seven winter visits to Florida between 1885 and 1909. Homer was as much a fisherman and outdoorsman as artist. He wintered variously at Tampa, Homosassa Springs, Key West and Enterprise, on the St. Johns. He also went to Nassau and Bermuda.

Like George Inness Sr., Homer had a mystical love of nature, and the two men were probably the greatest artistic individualists of 19th century America.

Though Homer didn't start doing watercolors until 1870, some of his finest have Florida themes. According to Ms. Cooper, who wrote the catalog notes for a major exhibit of Homer's watercolors, the earliest is called At Tampa, done in 1885.

Though he painted turtle and sponge fishermen in the Bahamas, Homer skipped their Florida counterparts. He also eschewed Florida architecture, concentrating instead on the natural. In a Florida Jungle, done in 1886, depicts a gator staring at its prey, while a spoonbill stands on the bank framed against palms. It probably was done at Homosassa.

Homer painted a dozen watercolors on his first trip, but Ms. Cooper said he painted on only three of his seven trips here, preferring to fish instead.

Jerry Blizin is retired and living in Tarpon Springs. He was a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965.