Laura Simon Nelson’s collection of Southern art on display at THNOC
by Judith Bonner
Baton Rouge native Laura Simon Nelson has enjoyed a lifelong interest in art despite little formal schooling in the subject. After years of collecting, her enthusiasm grew into an intense desire to see her artworks cared for properly and made accessible to the public for viewing and further study. This dream began to materialize in 1996 with a gift of 307 works to The Historic New Orleans Collection, a number she expanded to 525 in subsequent years. A selection of more than eighty of these pieces, including paintings, sculpture, and Newcomb pottery, is on view in the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries, which THNOC named in her honor in 2012.
A Most Significant Gift:
The Laura Simon Nelson Collection
Through November 4, 2017
400 Chartres Street
While visiting architect Carl Woodward, Nelson viewed Man Sharpening Axe, a watercolor painting by his uncle, Ellsworth Woodward. Founder of the Newcomb College art school, Ellsworth established the Newcomb pottery program along with his brother William, Carl’s father. The enterprise flourished from 1895 to 1940 and brought a source of revenue to many women. Active in numerous art organizations, the brothers promoted art locally and regionally and advocated for the preservation of the Vieux Carré and the establishment of an art organization to stimulate interest in the Quarter and its architecture. Public appreciation of the Woodwards and Louisiana art was eclipsed by the modernist art movements of the 1950s and ’60s, but William’s influence was lasting: his numerous French Quarter street scenes form the foundation to which all other subsequent street scenes of the Vieux Carré are indebted.
Upon hearing Nelson’s appreciation of the Woodward painting, Carl led Nelson to his attic, full of artwork by both William and Ellsworth Woodward, and exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting for you all my life.” In addition to embarking on collecting Woodwards, Nelson continued schooling herself about her new passion. She sought the advice of George Jordan, a former museum curator who guided her in Louisiana, American, and European art.
The fruits of Nelson’s collecting and research were first showcased in 1996, with a three-part exhibition at THNOC. The show was accompanied by weekly lectures, symposia, and an exhibition catalog, as well as a documentary on the Woodwards. This fall, five years after the opening of the galleries named for her, THNOC presents another Nelson showcase with A Most Significant Gift: The Laura Simon Nelson Collection.
A wide range of subjects are on view by artists including Wayman Adams, Jacques Amans, François Bernard, Morris Henry Hobbs, Clarence Millet, and Andres Molinary. The show embraces Nelson’s love of the Woodwards, as well their dedication to women’s education, which inspired her to collect work by women artists. Henrietta Davidson Bailey, who taught at Newcomb for thirty-nine years, is represented with pottery featuring pine cones and pine needles, a motif she was especially skilled in producing. Sadie Irvine, who served on the faculty and then as clerk of the Newcomb Guild for twenty years, is represented with several pieces, as is pottery decorator Anna Frances Simpson.
A portrait of Lydia Brown by Josephine Crawford depicts one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans. The portrait reveals the painterly style Crawford developed during her training at the club’s art school in the late 1920s, before her Parisian studies under cubist theorist André Lhote changed her style dramatically.
Robert M. Rucker’s Royal Street Antique Shop shows the 333 Royal Street storefront of book publisher Joseph Harmanson, who made his shop into a gallery for printmakers, including Knute Heldner, whose paintings also reveal radical style changes—from cubist cityscapes to romantic views of swamp cabins. Nelson’s collection includes numerous works in a variety of subjects and art styles, making it an excellent source for an analytical study of artistic trends and historical events in Louisiana.
Nelson’s concern for the survival of her collection and its accessibility to future generations led her to THNOC—and to date, the Laura Simon Nelson Collection is the single largest private collection of Louisiana artworks placed in a museum. Nelson’s donation has led to increased awareness of Louisiana art, helping to preserve an audience for many artworks that might otherwise have been overlooked.