How does one spark instant rapport with European royalty or American tycoons and society aristocrats?
More than a century ago in Palm Beach, Ernest Walter Histed might have offered an answer.
The esteemed Gilded Age portrait photographer — who maintained a studio on the island for decades after establishing himself elsewhere in the United States and abroad — is said to have quickly put at ease the thousands of rich and famous people who posed for him.
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Those who have had their photo taken by him include England’s Queen Victoria; US presidents; opera and theater stars; Henry Flagler; and assorted Vanderbilts, Astors and Drexels, to name a few.
Even though he once told a Miami News reporter that President Benjamin Harrison cajoled him into a game of pool before his portrait sitting, Histed evidently sidestepped public gossip about his clients.
“They were all good subjects,” the thick-haired, pipe-smoking portraitist said after retiring in the early 1930s. “They all behaved in a natural manner, and that is the secret of successful photography.”
Born in Brighton, England, in 1862, Histed is said to have apprenticed for influential photographers before coming to the United States in 1881.
After a stint in Chicago, he worked in Pittsburgh, where he advertised himself as a society photographer (he also photographed the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood; his images ran in many newspapers).
Histed then briefly returned to England, landing commissions for portraits of novelist H. Rider Haggard, concert singer Clara Butt and Pope Pius X, as well as the Empress of Germany at the command of Queen Victoria, according to the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In the 1890s, Histed returned to the United States, opening a studio on New York’s Fifth Avenue and staking a claim as a summer resort photographer in Newport, Rhode Island.
One of his 1895 subjects, Cordelia Rundell Bradley Drexel Biddle — who married financier Anthony Drexel Biddle Sr. — posed in her wedding dress. “One can see why critics compared Histed with the cream of portraitists … ,” Florida art historian and Palm Beach art dealer Deborah C. Pollack wrote in her book, “Palm Beach Visual Arts.”
Histed came to Palm Beach around 1899. Among various area properties he’d buy and sell over the years, he settled on an undeveloped, densely vegetated tract around Seaview Avenue and Coconut Row, stretching west to the South Lake Trail, where he opened his first island studios.
“Mr. EW Histed has purchased a piece of land at the entrance of the jungle,” the Palm Beach Daily News reported in 1904. “His portraits have been a sort of fad in New York and Newport, RI, and will doubtless be here.”
Histed’s perch wasn’t far from the action then: Flagler’s two neighboring 1890s-built resort hotels — the now-gone mammoth Royal Poinciana and, just east, The Breakers.
In between golf, tea dances and fine dining, why not have your portrait taken by reportedly very likeable Histed? Not only was his work considered superior, but he added platinum to his print-making process to prevent fading, he claimed.
Among the many people he photographed in Palm Beach: the daughters of well-known hotelier Fred Sterry (who ran day-to-day operations at Flagler’s Palm Beach hotels) and then-famous stage actor Joseph Jefferson.
Histed 1905 portraits of Jefferson, for one, brought the man’s “distinct features and buoyant personality to life as if the photographer had painted Jefferson’s portraits in oil,” according to Pollack.
Around his Palm Beach studio property, Histed, an avid gardener, grew an abundance of flowers and fruit trees, donating hundreds of blooms each Easter Sunday to local churches, according to local news of the day. He also made botanical excursions to the Everglades and took photographs of Florida Seminoles.
Histed later operated a successful studio on County Road near Phipps Plaza, and by the late 1920s, moved it to the then-new hot spot, Worth Avenue.
After the 1933 social season, Histed, who, with his wife, Lena, had two children, retired and moved to a 200-acre farm in Jupiter on the Loxahatchee River.
Decades after his death in 1947, a longtime resident Jupiter recalled his interactions with Histed.
“I was interested in photography, (and) he took great pride in showing me his stuff,” 100-plus-year-old William Carlin White told a Florida Weekly reporter in 2012. “He had plenty of ability, but he was also liked by everybody, even the snobs.”