Hughie Lee-Smith’s enigmatic ‘End of the Festival’ at Cummer Museum

Hughie Lee-Smith’s End of the Festival (1954) has always been the most enigmatic painting to me at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve looked at this picture on more than a dozen occasions, stopping by, at least briefly, on every visit I make there. Somehow, each time, I expect it to reveal something to me it never does.

It puzzles me.

A shoeless man walks, seemingly in bewilderment, along a dilapidated pier or dock which he has come to the end of in a beautiful ocean harbor. Where’s he going? What’s he looking for? Another man – the same man? – stands in the background behind him. Streamers wave in the wind. A sailboat passes by.

I find the image eerie.

Between the man’s inelegantly cropped haircut, lack of shoes, baggy clothes and vacant sense of purpose, I’ve always suspected he may be dealing with mental illness. Perhaps he’s a patient somewhere? Escaped? Lost?

The end of the pier he’s coming to leaves him nowhere to go. Look at the other end of the pier, it cuts off as well before connecting to another, or to land. He’s stuck. How did he get there? These unanswerable questions give the painting a Surrealistic feel.

Hughie Lee-Smith, End of the Festival, 1954, oil on Masonite. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
Hughie Lee-Smith, End of the Festival, 1954, oil on Masonite. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

Even the Cummer Museum’s insightful wall text attached to the picture doesn’t crack this riddle for me. It tells visitors Lee-Smith (1915-1999) was born in Eustis, Florida, smack dab in the middle of the state north of Orlando. The beach landscape in the background recalls Florida; it even has a Florida Highwaymen feel to it. The picture’s composition is oil on Masonite, the same materials used by the Highwaymen. Its completion in 1954, however, well predates the Highwaymen’s popularity.

Lee-Smith spent most of his childhood in Georgia according the label, with a strict grandmother who limited his social interactions. The Cummer’s curators inform us Lee-Smith described his childhood as “isolating.” End of the Festival has isolation in spades.

“Alienation” as well as the wall text explains.

Lee-Smith was Black, born in the Jim Crow segregated South. As a child, he was removed from his home and sent to live with a strict grandparent. Isolated. Alienated.

By coincidence, where Lee-Smith was born – Eustis – is in Lake County. From 1944-1977, Lake County had arguably the most evil, racist sheriff in America, Willis McCall, a man suspected of multiple murders of Black people and countless abuses. He was the focus of one of the more chilling episodes of my “Welcome to Florida” podcast. End of the Festival was painted at what would have been the height of McCall’s sadistic power. Did Lee-Smith know anything of McCall’s reign of terror?

Smith would become a highly prominent artist with work in major museums across the nation including the Smithsonian American Art Museum which on its profile page of the artist shares the remarkable fact that Bill Cosby purchased three of his artworks for the set of the “Cosby Show” which thereby displayed Lee-Smith’s work to tens of millions of people, myself, unknowingly as a child, included. The Smithsonian further tells us Lee-Smith was classically trained, influenced by Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper. De Chirico and Hopper can definitely be seen in End of the Festival’s spareness, it’s open-endedness, it’s isolation, alienation, mystery and resolvability. All were hallmarks of de Chirico, Hopper and Lee-Smith.

None of which takes away from the painting for me. I don’t require tidy endings. I like movies that end with unanswered questions and I like how this painting makes me feel uneasy. Unlike any other artwork in the museum.

The world’s best art makes viewers think and feel. This picture does both.

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