Antiques and Art Around Florida — 2010-2011 Issue
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Laura Woodward: Florida
Deborah C. Pollack

Laura Woodward was born in Mount Hope in Orange County, New York, in 1834. By the early 1870s she was living in New York City and a professional artistmember of the Hudson River and White Mountain schools.

Woodward hiked and sketched throughout the wilderness of the Northeast, revering nature and realistically depicting its pristine state. Her works could command higher prices than her male Peers and she received excellent reviews from the New York Times, Brooklyn Daily Eagle and many other publications. She showed her paintings at prestigious exhibition halls, such as the American Art Gallery, National Academy of Design, Boston Art Club, Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and several other venues in the Midwest and South.

Always pursuing new areas to paint, Laura Woodward began to spend the winters in St. Augustine, Florida. In the 1880s and by the end of 1889 she had joined Martin Johnson Heade and the other artists at Henry Morrison Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel. She met Flagler the second year she was in St. Augustine, who was an admirer of her work. At least two of her paintings were in his St. Augustine home, Kirkside, and her art was displayed and sold amid fountains and statuary where Flagler’s newspaper, The Florida Times Union, had their St. Augustine bureau. While staying in St. Augustine, Woodward painted numerous scenes of the region, such as the St. Johns River, Jacksonville Beach, Anastasia Island, and small, charming watercolors of the St. Augustine skyline. Little did Laura know that she was to become one of Florida’s greatest artists and publicists, and integral to the development of South Florida.

Laura was disappointed in St. Augustine because it was not as tropical as she had hoped, so she began to travel throughout Florida searching for exotic plants and flowers. Pressing into the untamed interior of Florida and painting outside amid unpredictable wildlife, she went as far west as Dunnellon and painted Dunn’s Bluff’s for John F. Dunn, a prominent citizen and the namesake of the area. She sketched the Withlacoochee River, Blue Springs and, rendered several scenes of the Ocklawaha River, called The Home of Alligators. Yearning for more Florida locales to delineate with her graceful brush, she painted the Tomoka River near Ormond Beach (also famous for its alligators), so realistically that her painting corresponds with historical photographs of the area. Laura still wasn’t satisfied so she penetrated further throughout the Florida wilderness.

Her works of the aforementioned rivers as well as the Indian, St. Lucie, and Banana Rivers received much praise back in St. Augustine and the newspapers declared, because Laura had traveled and painted so many different locations of Florida and publicized them by selling her works of those locales, that she should be adopted by the entire State of Florida.

The St. Augustine press also stated that:

There are few ladies who have won friends faster than Miss Laura Woodward has done during her residence here …. She has sent her beautiful pictures of Florida scenery from Texas to Maine, from Florida to Oregon, and delightful pictures to surround one they are… Every lover of the State owes her a debt of gratitude for familiarizing the world at large with the nature of the State and her forests, streams and plants.

St. Augustine’s
The Tatler, February 13, 1892.

While in St. Augustine, Miss Woodward was told of how beautiful Palm Beach was and made the arduous trip south, which included traveling by three trains, a steamboat and a mail boat (for almost three days), to discover the tropical foliage she was longing for. By the late spring and throughout the summer of 1890 Woodward was in Palm Beach, painting outside amid what was then largely jungle and swampland inhabited by those Florida indigenous denizens— panthers, bears, numerous alligators, legions of snakes and swarms of hungry mosquitoes. (In fact, the pathways carved through the jungles of Palm Beach were so dangerous that children went to school in rowboats instead of walking.)

Frequently these wild creatures “interfered” with her artwork but she loved all that she sensed. And, although she was experiencing summer heat and humidity while wearing long dresses with high necklines, it was the happiest she had ever been.

Miss Woodward brought her colorful, tropical, watercolor sketches of South Florida back to St. Augustine. Her paradisiacal works became well-known and highly prized by St. Augustine’s visitors who brought them back to their homes throughout the United States. Especially mentioned in the press were her works of “exotic” coconut palms and the “curious” Royal Tomoka Creek near Ormond, oil on canvas, ca. 1889, 18 x 27 inches. Collection of Edward and Deborah Pollack Poinciana tree blossoms. Blooming only in the summertime, they were called “curious” because the winter residents and tourists had never seen their striking, red-orange colored flowers.

While in St. Augustine, Laura told Henry Morrison Flagler that Palm Beach should be developed as a resort, using her paintings (including those of the Royal Poinciana) as full-color evidence of her ideas. (With no color photography in use until the twentieth century, it was only Laura Woodward—the only St. Augustine artist who had traveled to Palm Beach by 1890—who could bring Palm Beach’s colorful beauty to Flagler.) Because Laura had fallen in love with the area, she wanted to move there but she realized Flagler was the only man who could build a hotel sizeable enough for her to sell her works to the visiting society tourists and make a living. Fortunately, Flagler listened to Laura and investigated Palm Beach.

Flagler was so compelled by her ideas and her art that he bought property in the same locations depicted in her paintings. The first choice of property was the McCormick property (featured in several works by Woodward) where he built his hotel, naming it Hotel Royal Poinciana—after the colorful paintings of the tree and its blossoms brought to him by Laura Woodward. When Flagler was constructing the Royal Poinciana in 1893, Woodward told him she wanted a studio in the hotel, so he established a temporary one as well as a home for Laura and her sister, Libbie. A permanent studio was included when the hotel was completed in 1894. His newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, gratefully acknowledged Woodward as being responsible for publicizing the allure of Florida—especially the east coast of Florida—to the entire nation.

Laura also became well-known for her works around Jupiter, such as the Indian River at Jupiter Narrows and the Jupiter Inlet. In the illustrated watercolor, ceremonial Native American shell mounds are depicted, most likely at the Jupiter Inlet.

Later, Laura v i s i ted and sketched at the New River (Fort Lauderdale), Miami and its environs such as Arch Creek and Bear Cut Inlet. She painted Seminoles in their dugout canoes on the Miami River and also sketched in the Everglades--despite the dangerous conditions there. In fact, Laura was one of the first professional women artists to paint in the Everglades. In 1895, the same year Flagler struck a deal with Julia Tuttle for Miami, Laura, her sister, and Mrs. Tuttle had an exciting adventure on the Miami River on their way to the Everglades.

Woodward’s works of the Miami and Palm Beach area, as well as many other Florida locales (including intimate, detailed studies of South Florida’s flowers, revealing her as a naturalist) were well received by the Florida and New York media and collected by prominent art patrons from around the world.

Tragically, due to failing eyesight, she was unable to continue painting by 1920 but remained highly regarded as the famous Florida artist and the pioneer artist of Palm Beach. She continued living in Palm Beach County until 1926 when, at the age of 92, it was necessary for her to move to St. Cloud where her caregivers lived. She died shortly thereafter.

Laura Woodward’s life and art changed the history of Florida and it was largely due to her that Florida became known as a tropical paradise. Because she modestly never publicly told of her influence on Flagler (only family members knew the truth), never had children to extend her legacy, and was not an active member of a Florida Art Association, she later became forgotten in the state’s southern region— the very place altered forever by her presence. One hopes that Florida’s greatest nineteenth - century woman artist and one of its greatest publicists is never, ever forgotten again.