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Saturday, March 26, 2016

William Woodward

United Fruit Company Mural, SS. Atenas, 1921, William Woodward
When one paints along the seacoast, the artist has a choice. He or she can turn their easel (or camera) toward the water, and paint the standard array of ocean waves artists have depicted for generations. Or, the painter may turn away from the sea toward the colorful ocean front vistas, which are very often more interesting than the water. In doing so, the artist has the opportunity to explore the ways and means the local populace has used in acclimating themselves to the vagaries of living by the turbulent tides of the sea. I've written several times about artists from the iconic New England shores, almost to the point a reader might well think the U.S. Seashore cease to exist south of Coney Island. Of course that's not the case at all. Chesapeake Bay has its "school" of painters as does the North Carolina Outer Banks and the those artist who have popularized the Florida peninsula and points south. Even coastal cities have assumed distinctive art entities. For instance, though not technically situated along the coast, New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), has long had its own painting "club" including such artists as Allison Owen, Rolland Golden, Elsworth Woodward, and especially his older brother, William Woodward, who has often been deemed "The Father of Art in New Orleans."

Madame John's Legacy, 1910, William Woodward
More recent artists have turned to
depicting NOLA culture over its
historic presence.

New Orleans is nothing if not historic and colorful. Woodward's Madame John's Legacy (above), attests to both qualities. Woodward was especially fond of the New Orleans French Quarter. Many NOLA artists have contributed works bearing those qualities, though in more recent years, as the city has grown and changed (sometimes not for the better), many of them have taken to emphasizing the jazz music and musicians for which the city has become famous. Although there were undoubtedly local artists depicting "local color" before 1884 when William Woodward arrived in town, the New England-born artist brought with him a keen, well-trained eye for beauty and a sharp mind centered as much or architecture as painting, a fact plainly evident in many of his works.

View of the Napoleon House in New Orleans, 1904, William Woodward
Born in Seekonk, Massachusetts, William Woodward first came to NOLA at the behest of, William Preston Johnston to teach fine arts, mechanical drawing, and architectural drawing at the newly founded Tulane University. Woodward had taught at the Rhode Island School of Design while still a student there. In 1886 he extended his honeymoon through Scotland and England to include a three-month summer study at the Académie Julian in Paris where he found a new direction for his artistic development, seeing for the first time Impressionist works, a style he came to employ in his architectural scenes. His View of the Napoleon House in New Orleans (above), dates from 1904 when he had fully embraced French Impressionism giving it a southern "twist" all his own. This one even has the look of van Gogh.

The painting at the top-left is a portrait by William Woodward's brother, Elsworth
 (seen in the larger photo). The painting at the lower-left is a self-portrait.
The NOLA French Quarter
The multicultural Vieux Carré (left), in a crescent of the Mississippi River, provided Woodward lifelong artistic inspiration. Unlike the wide-open spaces growing up in the Northeast, the French Quarter was crowded with European-style residences alongside docks, open air markets, dry goods and hardware stores, all located in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral on the city's main square. Woodward's impressionistic views of the Vieux Carré were critical in focusing attention on the historical structures, many of which were on the verge of being recklessly destroyed. In 1895, he was in the forefront of the movement against the demolition of The Cabildo, the seat of government during the Spanish Colonial period. This battle for historic preservation of the French Quarter ultimately led to the establishment of the Vieux Carré Commission. Woodward focused intensely on the Vieux Carré before artists found it fashionable, documenting the city's rich cultural heritage in vignettes of daily life featuring street cleaners, milkmaids, women at the market, and residents simply engaged in their daily lives. Such scenes rank among the best of 19th-century urban New Orleans. Woodward's Impressionism ultimately developed a manner of rendering ideal in capturing the soft light, moisture, and romantic essence of the French Quarter. His palette lightened as his architecture softened along with his figures, which have a sense of immediacy that enlivens his architectural scenes.

Carrollton Section of New Orleans, 1899, William Woodward
Woodward's most famous work was a fifteen-foot round canvas mural he completed in 1921 for the ceiling of the entrance rotunda at the United Fruit Company building on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The painting (top) has since been moved for conservation purposes, but the mural made quite an impact when it was completed for the million-dollar, 11-story United Fruit Company building. The mural was described by the New Orleans’ Illustrated News as “...a riot of glorious color toned down to the aristocracy of harmonious good taste.” Another review described it as “...a wonder of flashing blues, scarlets, and golds haled from the tropics.” Woodward's Carrollton Section of New Orleans (above) dating from 1899, is more typical of his work. Woodward and his wife were not bound by the Cajun environs of New Orleans, but traveled broadly, as witnessed by the artist's view of Venice, Italy (below). While painting the United Fruit Company mural, Woodward fell from the scaffold. He injured his spine, resulting in permanent paralysis of the legs. Woodward and his wife retired to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1923. Though confined to a wheelchair, Woodward remained active, filling his retirement years with a prolific number of paintings as he and his wife travel around the United States in a specially-equipped car. Woodward died in New Orleans in November, 1939. He was seventy-eight.

 View of Venice, William Woodward


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