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Time and Color

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Few New Orleans artists were more influential than William and Ellsworth Woodward, the Massachusetts-born brothers who in the 1880s were hired by the art departments of the then all-male Tulane University and all-female Sophie Newcomb College, respectively. Although William went on to chair Tulane's architecture school, both helped shape the Newcomb art school, which was internationally famous for its pottery, long rated among the finest examples of the Arts and Crafts movement on these shores.

But as painters, the Woodward brothers were famous for being the first practitioners of impressionism in this area. And unlike the other notable local impressionist of the period, the hyper-prolific A. J. Drysdale, who followed in their wake with thousands of blurry swamp scenes, the Woodwards were ingenious colorists who wove fine threads of prismatic brilliance through their languorous landscapes and city scenes. William favored the plein air approach, typically rendering historic sites such as the Old French Opera House on the spot in Raphaelli crayons -- oil sticks -- in an almost herringbone weave of multi-colored strokes that end up suggesting the atmospheric, softly luminous afternoon light of the Quarter. Although specific buildings are often the subjects, vistas such as his Corner of Chartres at Old Ursuline Convent recall the deft charm of Pissaro's stylized streetscapes. Included are some more traditional, earlier oils including a portrait, Lady in a Pillbox Hat, that somehow melds Sargent's luminous hauteur with Toulouse-Lautrec's compositional verve, all of which hint at depth and scope that far exceed our often stereotypical impressions of his work.

His brother Ellsworth typically worked in watercolors, and while there are fewer examples on which to form an opinion, what we see suggests a consistent deftness and finesse punctuated with flashes of occasional brilliance. As with William, luminosity abounds, only here it is often found in the shadows, lending an incipient Maxfield Parrish sensibility. Pervasive yet elusive, the Woodwards' efforts have not appeared in any numbers in any one place until now. This Jean Bragg Gallery exhibit, accompanied by a hefty monograph by Jean Moore Bragg Lusher and Dr. Susan Saward, provides a rare opportunity to see quality Woodwards in quantity.

Luminosity of another sort abounds in the paintings of Stan Rice, a West Coast transplant who arrived a solid century later. Unlike the Woodwards, who studied at some of the world's most prestigious art schools, Rice was largely self taught. He was, in fact, a poet, a discipline in which he claimed to be an autodidact as well, although a fairly prominent one. His emergence as his own kind of visionary painter was seemingly seamless, perhaps because his poetics were vividly visionary as well. Chronology I revisits his early work, which often employed Greek myths as a starting point. "The Homeric poems embody the values I want in my paintings: vividness, simplicity, restraint, exaggeration, intensity," he once said, in what amounts to a pretty good self-description, although he could have added irony, as well. Droll irony, to be sure.

In his 1989 Death of Agamemnon, the subject is bathing in an old claw-foot tub when lanced by a scantily clad woman, presumably his wife, wielding a trident and apparently unhappy with all the running around he did while sacking Troy. Leering co-conspirators assist from the shadows, but the effect of the piece relies as much on the clashing colors in a kind of psychedelic expressionist phantasmagoria, as the narrative, which here appears as ironically droll as a beat poem.

In Abduction of Nymph some horned satyrs and other mythic types are in the process of making off with a nymph in Rice's update of a favorite theme of the Italian renaissance. And again it's those vibrantly colliding colors and ironically exaggerated expressions that give it its 20th century aura and bittersweet bite. Yet, this also harks to Rice's perhaps unexpected roots in 19th century French symbolists, especially Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon (who, while born in France, was conceived in Louisiana, where his parents operated a plantation). While Rice never bothered to mute his chromatic palette as much as the Woodwards did, all three shared an uncanny color sense that came to fruition in the sun-drenched environs of this humidly tropical city.

Stan Rice's Abduction of Nymph updates a favorite theme of the Italian renaissance, but also harks to Rice's inspiration by the 19th century French symbolists.
  • Stan Rice's Abduction of Nymph updates a favorite theme of the Italian renaissance, but also harks to Rice's inspiration by the 19th century French symbolists.

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