Although he was not a native of the South, Ellsworth Woodward became a force in Southern art education and a dynamic spokesman for his adopted region. Born in Seekonk, Massachusetts, he was one of six children. Ellsworth and his older brother William would both become artists, a career path ignited by their visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. From 1878 to 1880, Ellsworth attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, established in 1877 as one of the first institutions of higher learning to specialize in art and design. Around 1884, he furthered his education in Munich, studying briefly with Samuel G. Richards.
In 1885, Ellsworth Woodward—still a young man in his twenties—joined his brother William on the art faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans. Two years later, he became professor of art at Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s coordinate of Tulane, which had been founded in 1886. In 1890, he was made director of the art school, a position he held for forty-one years. Under Woodward’s leadership, the college sought to prepare women to pursue vocations in the applied arts, including pottery, book design, silversmithing, jewelry, and textiles. The curriculum emphasized the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement as a counterpoint to the proliferation of machine-made products, focusing instead on the creation of beautiful handcrafted objects suitable for everyday use.
Besides painting, teaching, and his administrative responsibilities at Newcomb, Woodward was active in many local and regional organizations. He was a leading advocate for the establishment of the New Orleans Art Association in 1900 and the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans in 1922; he also supported preservation efforts in the historic French Quarter. He was integrally involved in the establishment of the Delgado Museum of Art (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) and, beginning in 1925, was its acting director for fourteen years, six of which included duty as president of the board as well.
Woodward’s most influential role, however, may have been as a catalyst and champion of the Southern States Art League, an organization he led as president from its inception in 1921 until 1939. He explained its purpose to the local press: “The movement is not centralized in any city or around any group of artists: it is of the South, for the South and by the South, and its ultimate aim is to form in the South an appreciation of what the South can and will create in the fine arts.” A skilled orator and charismatic persona, he delivered speeches on art around the country for organizations such as the College Art Association, the American Library Association, and the Atlanta Art Association. Three years after his retirement from Newcomb College in 1931, he was appointed to direct the Gulf States Public Works of Art Project.
While his teaching and leadership responsibilities claimed the majority of his time, Woodward faithfully pursued his own craft. He made drawings and etchings, and painted in oil and watercolor. The latter works—impressionistic scenes depicting Louisiana landscapes, New Orleans city life, and the places he visited while traveling—were represented in important exhibitions, including annuals at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After a full life dedicated to art education and promoting Southern art, Woodward died in New Orleans at the age of seventy-eight. Woodward’s art is included in public collections in Louisiana and beyond, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.