Reproductions of Laura Woodward’s work can be seen at the Boynton Beach City Library, 208 S. Seacrest Blvd., through April. A similar exhibit at the Delray Beach Historical Society, 3 NE First St., runs through May.
By Ron Hayes
In the 1890s, that golden Gilded Ager, Henry M. Flagler, enticed his fellow multimillionaires to discover the subtropical splendor of Palm Beach.
But who enticed Flagler?
In the beginning, she bowed to Victorian modesty and signed herself simply, “L. Woodward.”
From 1890 until 1919, Laura Woodward painted Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Jupiter, Miami and the Everglades. In oil and watercolors, she captured the bloody reds of the island’s hibiscus blossoms, the cool blue shade of its jungle paths, the palm trees beside Lake Worth.
She came to Palm Beach four years before Henry Flagler, and when she carried paintings of its flaming royal Poinciana trees back to St. Augustine, the Standard Oil tycoon came after, and built a huge hotel he dubbed the Royal Poinciana, where Laura Woodward lived and painted for the next quarter-century.
“She was Florida’s most important 19th-century woman artist,” says Deborah Pollack, “and one of its greatest publicists.”
Pollack, a Palm Beach art historian and dealer, is the author of Laura Woodward: The Artist Behind the Innovator Who Developed Palm Beach, a beautifully illustrated biography, published in conjunction with the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
To mark the book’s publication, two local exhibits featuring reproductions of Woodward's work are running concurrently at the Boynton Beach City Library and the Delray Beach Historical Society.
“She was an entrepreneur,” Pollack told a recent gathering at the library. “Not rich, but very gutsy. She perpetuated the notion of Florida as a tropical paradise.”
Born in 1834 in Mount Hope, N.Y., Woodward was in her fifties and already an established member of the Hudson River School of nature artists when she first came to St. Augustine in the mid-1880s. But ultimately, St. Augustine proved too tame, so Woodward came south, settled into the Coconut Grove House in what was then called Lake Worth, and painted. And painted.
“Frequently the wild animals interfered with my work,” she once said.
She painted the original Bethesda-by-the-Sea church, the Jupiter lighthouse, the black community in Palm Beach. At 61, she painted the Everglades.
Might she have painted Manalapan or Gulf Stream?
“There’s no documentation of her doing any work between Palm Beach and Delray Beach,” Pollack says, “but it’s highly likely. We know she painted in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and stopped along the way.”
Woodward sold her paintings from a studio at the Royal Poinciana and licensed their reproduction as “chromolithographs,” early post cards. She painted hundreds of works until 1919, when failing eyesight forced her to stop.
In 1926, she moved to join a caregiver’s family in St. Cloud, near Orlando, and died two months later.
Back in Mount Hope, the headline in the local paper read, “Laura Woodward Spinster Artist Dies At Age Of 92."
But to her biographer, the pioneer artist was no spinster.
“She never married,” Pollack concedes, “but she was in love with nature, and she was married to her work.”