WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joseph Stella, the New York artist whose floral and botanical works are being shown here at the Norton Museum of Art, never painted in South Florida. But it would have been a perfect place for him.
The kinds of exotic plants and flowers and trees that inspired him are everywhere, growing wild along the roads, in backyards and vacant lots and, carefully trimmed and shaped, around estates, resorts and even around the Norton Museum itself.
Some of the plants are native to Florida. Others have come from around the world.
Many of the flowers and plants that Mr. Stella featured in his paintings are concentrated in a handful of botanical and sculpture gardens, all just a short drive from the museum.
The Mounts Botanical Garden
“Stella created layers of color and texture and shapes,” said Rochelle Wolberg, the curator and director of the Mounts Botanical Garden, about a 15-minute drive from the Norton. “You come here and it’s like walking into one of his paintings. It’s the next logical progression.”
The Mounts Botanical Garden, run by Palm Beach County, is about the size of four city blocks in Manhattan, nowhere near the scale of the New York Botanical Garden, where Mr. Stella got many of his ideas. Mr. Stella lived mostly in Manhattan, but for a few years he lived in the Bronx, a few blocks from the gardens. The gardens around here don’t have the scale of the New York Botanical Garden, but they have a good sampling of Mr. Stella’s raw materials.
The Mounts quivers with flashes of lavender and maroon, and shades of pink, orange and yellow. Mockingbirds, blue jays, hummingbirds and butterflies pirouette through its palms, live oaks, maples and cypress trees.
The lilies and lotuses that stirred Mr. Stella grow on the banks of a little lake, edged with wavy swaths of waterlilies, with dark green pads and white blooms. The majestic, blazing white herons that Mr. Stella sanctified in “Purissima” sometimes wade gingerly along the shore, swishing their bills in the shallows for food. Goldfish ripple the water.
At certain times, the Mounts’ pale yellow ylang-ylang, a flowering tree from the Philippines, spritzes the air with a powerful scent that has made Chanel No. 5 a favorite of generations of women.
Four Arts Botanical Gardens
The Four Arts Botanical Gardens, just over the Royal Park Bridge on the island of Palm Beach, is a tiny, densely cultivated place of less than half an acre. But it opens onto the neighboring, two-acre Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden, making it feel bigger than it is. The bigger garden, with its open grassy square, bronze and stone statues, shrubs and rows of shade trees, feels something like a pleasant park.
The smaller garden is filled with palms and hardwood trees; white pinwheel jasmine; pink and white begonias; broad-leafed philodendrons and alocasias, often called elephant ears; and clusters of crotons in shades of green with red, yellow and vermilion highlights.
The garden is a working laboratory tended by the Garden Club of Palm Beach. It was started in 1938 as a place for winter residents to get accustomed to what might or might not grow on the grounds of their own rambling homes, according to Mary Pressly, a former president of the club. The hardiest of these plants, she said, are the palms, crotons, philodendrons and alocasias.
Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens
The Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens is a miniature rainforest of more than 250 palm trees; live oaks; big, sprawling gumbo-limbo trees; cycads (ancient plants that are often mistaken for palms); and lots of ferns and broad-leafed, ground-hugging plants. It is a pleasant walk — or a few minutes by car— from the Norton Museum, via South Flagler Drive.
Over about 30 years, Ms. Norton transformed a quiet estate, set on a little more than two acres, into this verdant tropical garden, with a canopy so dense that the sun could barely filter through. She stopped building her jungle at the edge of a great lawn that leads up to the veranda of the Norton house.
Ms. Norton was the second wife of Ralph H. Norton, a Chicago steel tycoon. Mr. Norton and his first wife, Elizabeth, founded the Norton Museum of Art in 1941. A year later, the museum hired Ann Weaver to teach sculpture.
Elizabeth Norton died in 1947 and a year later, Mr. Norton and Ms. Weaver married. They moved into the two-story house on the grounds of what would become the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. As a wedding gift, Mr. Norton built his new wife an airy studio adjacent to the house. She specialized in supersized sculptures of brick and granite.
The Norton House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, and Ms. Norton’s studio have become galleries for some of Ms. Norton’s smaller sculptures and her charcoal and pastel drawings and watercolors, along with the work of other artists. She died in 1982.
The garden is left mostly to grow on its own. It has the moist, warm feel of a true rainforest. “She wanted people to walk in a jungle canopy of trees and happen upon one of her pieces,” said Margaret Horgan, the managing director of the garden. “She wanted the garden to be a natural place of discovery.”
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