Joseph Ryan Woodwell
Woodwell’s father, Joseph Woodwell (b. 1807) was a New York cabinetmaker and a carver of figures on ships’ prows and garden vases. He opened a hardware firm in Pittsburgh in 1847. His son Joseph (born in Pittsburgh on 7 September 1842) began the study of art under George M. Hetzel (1826-1899) and David Blythe (1815-1865). Woodwell was exhibiting his works when he was only seventeen, then his father sent him to Paris. Like pioneer American impressionist Mark Fisher, Joseph was part of Charles Gleyre’s atelier, therefore, he would have rubbed shoulders with Renoir, Sisley, Monet, and Pissarro. Although Gleyre insisted on careful, tight drawing, he was more liberal once students had moved on to master painting. During his tenure (1843-64), Gleyre taught students how to execute the ébauche, whose broad effects would be applied to large-scale paintings by Monet and other impressionists. Joseph’s other classmates in Gleyre’s studio were Pierce Francis Connelly (ca. 1840-1902) and Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (1840-1896), as mentioned by Sellin (1982, p. 12). Woodwell also worked in Barbizon, where he knew Millet and Charles Jacque (1813-1894). Emile-Charles Lambinet (1815-1877) also influenced Woodwell toward a Barbizon direction.
Woodwell was back in Pittsburgh in 1865 or 1867, when he was still painting in the dark, Barbizon mode. In Cambria and Somerset counties, Pennsylvania, Woodwell was part of the Scalp Level Group painters who worked in the Barbizon style. Gerdts (1990, vol. 1, pp. 288-89) explains how Woodwell’s palette lightened during the summers he spent at Magnolia, Massachusetts, the artists’ colony associated with William Morris Hunt. The slight shift in his style occurred in the late 1880s. Gillian Belnap (in Strazdes, 1992, p. 487) cautions that in Woodwell’s Boudin-like seascapes, “the fluid brushstrokes, however, have little in common with the fractured strokes associated with impressionist technique.” Unlike the impressionists, Woodwell still used the traditional reddish-brown underpainting, which gives an overall tonality, compared to painting on a pure white canvas. Even in the late period, Woodwell remained faithful to the Barbizon aesthetic.
Woodwell was active in Pittsburgh’s art community. The artist’s involvement with the Carnegie Internationals resulted in a portrait of Woodwell by Eakins in 1904. Woodwell also exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1861-1910), at the National Academy of Design (1879 and 1880), and at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Four views of Magnolia, Massachusetts (all unlocated) were on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and three landscapes appeared at the St. Louis Universal Exposition in 1904. Woodwell was appointed by Andrew Carnegie to acquire works for the Carnegie Museum of Art with the Carnegie Art Fund. Mrs. Woodwell donated her husband’s Sand Dunes (1909) to that museum. He died in his native Pittsburgh on 30 May 1911.
V. E. L., An Exhibition of the Work of Joseph R. Woodwell. Exh. cat. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 30 November 1953 - 4 January 1954; Boyle, Richard J. American Impressionism. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1974, pp. 74, 76-77; Roper, Matthew J., Jr. “Joseph R. Woodwell,” unpublished MS, 1976; Sellin, David. Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum, 1982, p. 12; Gerdts, William H. American Impressionism. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984, pp. 245-246; Idem, Art across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting, 1710-1920. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990, vol. 1, pp. 288-289; Strazdes, Diana et al. American Paintings and Sculpture to 1945 in the Carnegie Museum of Art. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1992, pp. 484-490; Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World’s Fair. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1993, p. 351.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.