Laura Woodward (1834-1926)

Laura Woodward was Florida’s most important nineteenth-century woman artist, one of its greatest publicists, and integral to the development of Palm Beach County. She was born in Mount Hope in Orange County, New York, on March 18, 1834, and by the early 1870s she was a professional artist living in New York City. She painted in the Catskills, the White Mountains, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains, and captured the Maine and Massachusetts coasts and the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania landscapes on canvas as well. A member of the Hudson River and White Mountain Schools, she exhibited at the American Art Gallery, National Academy of Design, Boston Art Club, Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and several other venues including numerous midwest and southern expositions. Her reviews in the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle and art publications of the day were glowing and her paintings commanded higher prices than some of her male colleagues.

Woodward began to spend the winters in St. Augustine, Florida, in the 1880s. She was disappointed in the Ancient City because it was not as tropical as she had hoped, so she traveled throughout Florida searching for exotic plants and flowers. She was told of how beautiful Palm Beach was and made the arduous trip south to discover the true tropical foliage she was longing for. By 1889 Woodward was spending time in Palm Beach and Jupiter, painting outside amid what was then largely jungle and swampland inhabited by panthers, bears, and numerous alligators. She brought her watercolor sketches of that area back to St. Augustine where she joined her friend Martin Johnson Heade and the other artists at Henry M. Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel. There she became famous for her renderings of the “curious” Royal Poinciana tree and its blossoms. The media determined she should be “adopted by the entire state” of Florida due to the way she publicized its natural beauties.

According to documented and corroborated family history, she (and her friend Frances Cragin) told Henry Flagler that Palm Beach should be developed as a resort, using her paintings as full-color evidence of her visionary ideas. Flagler listened to Laura and her friend, was compelled by her art, and bought property in the same locations depicted in her paintings. When Flagler was constructing his Palm Beach Hotel Royal Poinciana in 1893, he established a home and studio for Woodward there — a permanent atelier was included when the hotel was completed in 1894. His newspapers also acknowledged Woodward as being responsible for publicizing the allure of the east coast of Florida to the entire nation. Although she often visited New York and various parts of Florida, Woodward made Palm Beach her home from 1893-1926.

One of the Florida areas visited by Woodward was Miami and the regions around it. She painted Seminoles in their dugout canoes and also sketched in the Everglades — despite the dangerous conditions there. In 1895, Laura, her sister Libbie, and Mrs. Julia Tuttle had an exciting adventure on the Miami River. Woodward’s works of Miami and its environs, as well as many other Florida locales, were well-received by the Florida and New York media and collected by prominent art patrons.

Laura Woodward became nationally well-known for her delicate renderings in oil and watercolor of unspoiled nature throughout Florida. In 1920, when the Palm Beach Art League was established, Woodward was acknowledged as their pioneer and became an honorary member. Tragically, due to failing eyesight, Laura 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 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 on May 9, 1926. In 1940 the Palm Beach Art League held Woodward’s memorial exhibition and helped found the Norton Gallery and School of Art (Norton Museum of Art). Laura Woodward was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2013.

Biography written by Deborah C. Pollack author of Laura Woodward: The Artist Behind the Innovator Who Developed Palm Beach.

All that is Glorious Around Us
Art Amateur, 1880s
Maybelle Mann, Florida Artists: 1564-1945
New York Times, 1872-1880s
Orange County Times, 1892
Palm Beach Daily News, 1897 – 1926
Palm Beach Times, 1924
Petty’s Dictionary of Women Artists
The Tatler, St. Augustine