The Baton Rouge Art League begins with Ellsworth Woodward, where visitors can follow his alleyway of trees into 80 years of Louisiana art history.
Woodward’s, “Oak Alley, Versailles Plantation” stands as the centerpiece in the “Baton Rouge Art League 80th Anniversary Exhibition” at the Louisiana State Archives. The league bought the watercolor for $25 in 1935. That’s a jaw-dropping thought for art collectors and fans, considering that Woodward’s work is today valued at thousands of dollars.
The artist and his older brother, William, are considered two of the most influential figures in Southern art. And Ellsworth Woodward’s marquee sparkles a little brighter with his founding of the Newcomb Pottery movement.
But he was also a working artist in 1935 when he agreed to speak at a Baton Rouge Art League meeting.
The organization was founded by seven women in 1934 with the goal of making art more accessible to the community by purchasing one piece of artwork each year for a permanent collection to be publicly displayed.
And after Woodward completed his lecture, the art league purchased his painting.
Now it’s been strategically placed on an easel to greet visitors entering the State Archives’ art gallery, where the “80th Anniversary Exhibition” runs through Nov. 30.
“It starts here,” says member Bobbie Young, also the art league’s curator. “From the Woodward painting, you can walk through the exhibit and see how the permanent collection has grown.”
The show is a mix of artwork by past and present artists, all but a few having a Louisiana connection. It continues in the hallway next to the gallery with the art league’s collection of Works Progress Association paintings by New Orleans artists.
WPA art is a result of the Federal Art Project, the visual arts arm of the Works Progress Administration Federal One program in Theodore Roosevelt’s Great Depression-era New Deal initiative. The art project operated from 1935 to 1943 and put artists to work creating murals, paintings and posters.
The murals were public artworks, and many of them survive today in post offices, courthouses, schools, libraries, hospitals, airports and bus and train stations throughout the nation.
Some artists’ names in the exhibit will be more familiar than others, but the art league isn’t focusing on name recognition — just good Louisiana art.
Eighty years marks a lot of history, and the organization has grown from seven to 70 active members with 30 associates in that time.
“All of the members pay dues, and the money not only goes toward purchasing artwork and exhibitions, but a $1,000 scholarship for an LSU art student and the development of public school art programs,” art league president Susan Smith says.
The Louisiana State Archives houses the art league’s permanent collection, displaying some of its pieces in its offices and conference areas.
“We decided to take the WPA pieces out of the offices and place them in their own space in the hallway for this show,” Young says. “This gives the public easy access to them.”
Yet one of the timeliest paintings by New Orleans’ best-known WPA painter, John McCrady, is featured in the art gallery. McCrady painted it in 1941, titling it “The Battle of New Orleans.”
The art league displays not only the painting, uncharacteristically small when compared with McCrady’s other work, but also the pencil drawing for this painting. This piece is especially notable as the state prepares for the 200th anniversary celebration of the Battle of New Orleans in January.
The Baton Rouge Art League celebrates its living history, which will continue in May with an annual exhibition of work by contemporary Louisiana artists at the LSU Rural Life Museum, while at the same time looking at its past.
For the league not only added to its own collection over the years but donated pieces to other entities, including a John James Audubon etching displayed in the Oakley House at the Audubon State Historic Site in St. Francisville. Also, in 1938, the art league prompted the state legislature to create the Art Commission, which was absorbed into the larger Louisiana Art, Cultural and Historical Preservation Agency.
That agency was the forerunner of the present-day Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.