Animated Landscape: Magnolia 1888

Set sail with Joseph Ryan Woodwell’s painting, “Magnolia” and visit the coast of Magnolia, Massachusetts! Dive into this seascape favorite from the Museum’s permanent collection and learn a little more about this work and its maker below!


Joseph Woodwell was born in Pittsburgh, the son of woodcarver and hardware business owner Joseph W. Woodwell. Encouraged by his family to seek an education in the arts, young Joseph first studied informally with the genre painter David Gilmour Blythe (1815–1865), also of Pittsburgh, and, in 1859 at the age of seventeen, Woodwell left for Europe to attend the Académie Julian in Paris. Woodwell’s most important experience in France came from his association with the Barbizon school of landscape painters—precursors of the impressionist movement. It was through them that he developed a love of painting in nature, later stating, “To understand painting, you must understand Nature, and to understand Nature you must have a love for her.”

Upon his return to Pittsburgh in 1867, Woodwell divided his time between art and the hardware business—Joseph Woodwell Company—that he inherited from his father. He quickly became a leader in the arts in Pittsburgh, among both artists and fellow businessmen whom he encouraged to invest in the arts. He exhibited regularly in the Carnegie Internationals and in the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in addition to contributing to exhibitions in New York, Paris, and other venues.

Woodwell traveled extensively throughout his life, painting such iconic American scenes as Niagara Falls and Yosemite Valley, while also visiting swamps in Florida and redwood forests in California. Another location of which Woodwell was fond was the small community of Scalp Level, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to which he traveled with other Pittsburgh artists, including George Hetzel (1826–1899), acknowledged leader of the Scalp Level school. There Woodwell made wonderful sketches in pencil and oil, experimenting with composition, space, and natural light.

In 1888, Woodwell purchased a cottage at Magnolia, Massachusetts, having been introduced to the location by the Frick family of Pittsburgh. He subsequently spent many summers there, painting the water and the rugged coastline in a manner that brought out a brighter and more painterly technique than seen in his landscapes of Southwestern Pennsylvania. He made many small oil sketches of the coastal area surrounding Magnolia, five of which entered The Westmoreland’s collection in 1959, including the work shown above.

After a productive career, Woodwell died at Magnolia in 1911 at the age of sixty-eight of heart disease. The newly formed Associated Artists of Pittsburgh honored Woodwell by showing forty of his paintings during its second annual exhibition that year; in addition, the Carnegie Institute would later pay homage to him by mounting a retrospective of his work in 1933.


Credit Line (top) : Joseph Ryan Woodwell (1843-1911), Magnolia, 1888, Oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 8 1/16 x 12 1/16 inches, Mary Marchand Woods Memorial Fund, 1959.14
1. O’Toole, Judith Hansen. “Joseph Woodwell (1843–1911), Seascape, Magnolia, MA, 1887” in Picturing America: Signature Works from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Barbara L. Jones et al. (Greensburg, PA, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 2010), 78-80.