William Woodward 1859–1939, An American Impressionist in New Orleans

The sixth join exhibition presented by The Historic New Orleans Collection and New Orleans Museum of Art.


October 17, 2009–February 28, 2010
New Orleans Museum of Art
One Collins Diboll Circle City Park

An artist’s reputation frequently begins to fall into art historical perspective many decades after the artist’s death. Through time the identity of Massachusetts-born artist William Woodward (1859–1939) has merged with that of his younger brother, Ellsworth Woodward (1861–1939). In their sixth joint exhibition, The Historic New Orleans Collection and the New Orleans Museum of Art revisited William Woodward’s life and work, particularly his contributions in the realms of architecture and historic preservation. William Woodward 1859–1939, An American Impressionist in New Orleans presented over 70 paintings, etchings, sculpture, and ephemera drawn from the permanent collections of both museums.

William Woodward became interested in architecture while studying at the Massachusetts Normal Art School. He was still a student, in 1884, when Tulane University president William Preston Johnston hired him to teach fine arts, mechanical drawing, and architectural drawing. Two years later, having settled in New Orleans, William recommended that Johnston appoint Ellsworth to head the Newcomb College School of Art.
William was involved with every facet of architecture in New Orleans, consulting on the design of Tulane’s new building for architecture classes. He also designed and built his own home in Uptown New Orleans. His interest in architecture evolved into a passionate commitment to preservation. The first artist to focus intensely on the Vieux Carré, Woodward documented the Quarter’s rich cultural heritage in vignettes of daily life—women at market, street cleaners, deliverymen and milkmaids driving drayage carts, and residents engaged in their daily activities. Woodward’s depictions of French Quarter buildings focused public attention on the heedless destruction of historic properties. In 1895 Woodward led the local movement against the demolition of the Cabildo, the seat of government during the Spanish colonial period—and one of the few structures surviving from that era. The preservationists promoted a city ordinance that established the Cabildo as a museum, and their success ultimately led to the establishment of the Vieux Carré Commission.

Woodward’s participation in the campaign to save the Cabildo intensified his interest in the Quarter’s architecture. He set up his easel mid-street as he drew and painted the historic “Old Town.” He executed many of his scenes with oil crayon, an easily controllable medium for working on uneven street surfaces. This waxy medium was ideal for capturing the softly-lit, humid environment of the Vieux Carré.

Following surgery in 1921 to remove a tumor from his spine, Woodward was confined to a wheelchair. He retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast but remained a practicing artist and preservationist. He found Fiberloid, a plastic plate, to be a suitable matrix for printing his soft-focused street scenes. In 1938 Woodward published French Quarter Etchings, which reproduced 54 architectural prints, many depicting landmarks no longer standing at the time of publication. Early Views of the Vieux Carré: A Guide to the French Quarter, a spiral-bound guidebook published in 1964 by the Delgado Museum of Art (now NOMA), included 33 of Woodward’s architectural drawings and etchings. More than 30,000 copies of the book were sold in five editions.

The exhibition, on view at NOMA October 13, 2009–February 28, 2010, offered an opportunity to view a large selection of Woodward’s renderings of the French Quarter and to judge the strength of his artistic contribution. Seven decades after Woodward’s death, his work continues to “speak” in a distinctive voice.
—Judith H. Bonner

William Woodward 1859–1939, An American Impressionist in New Orleans
October 17, 2009–February 28, 2010
Wednesday, 12–8 p.m., and Thursday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
New Orleans Museum of Art, One Collins Diboll Circle, City Park
Free to Louisiana residents through November 13, regular admission rates apply thereafter; call (504) 658-4100 or visit for admission rates.

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