Neal Auction Company will offer an important circa 1920-21 William Woodward (American/New Orleans, 1859-1939) oil painting of the SS Atenas, a 5,000-ton banana reefer/passenger ship from the United Fruit Company’s “Great White Fleet,” depicted moored at Havana Harbor. The 30 by 24 inch oil is almost identical in composition to the 15 foot round canvas mural Woodward completed in 1921 for the ceiling of the entrance rotunda at the United Fruit Company building at 321 St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, now removed and conserved in a private collection.
Neal Auction Company’s Woodward painting – probably a finished study for the iconic 1921 United Fruit Company mural – comes to auction from a private collector who acquired it from the family of a merchant marine and U.S. Naval Captain who had once served aboard the Atenas.
One of the most notable differences in William Woodward’s two renditions of the same scene, aside from shape and size, is the assignation of the prominent great white ship’s name. The ship pictured in the United Fruit Company mural does not bear the Atenas name, nor has any Woodward scholar previously identified that painting’s massive ship. Neal Auction Company’s easel painting stands alone on its own merits, but also acts to shed light on the famous mural. The mural, which has not been on public display for decades, was damaged in the removal from the ceiling of the United Fruit Company building and entire sections lost. The restorers had only a 1921 black and white newspaper image of the mural to aid them in performing the necessary repairs and recreations.
Woodward, accompanied by his wife Louise, is known to have traveled aboard the Atenas to Havana where he made oil studies to aid him in the creation of the United Fruit Company mural. It is likely that Neal Auction Company’s painting is the final study for the great rotunda mural.
The 1921 mural made quite an impact when it was completed for the million-dollar, eleven story United Fruit Company building. The mural description by the July 1921 New Orleans’ Illustrated News as “a riot of glorious color toned down to the aristocracy of harmonious good taste” is as easily applied to Neal Auction Company’s easel rendition, as is the December 1921 Item Magazine description as “a wonder of flashing blues and scarlets and golds haled from the tropics….” In the Illustrated News article, Crawford Ellis, the United Fruit Company president responsible for the evolution of the United Fruit Company building, was called a “genius” who created “something of everlasting value to city, state and nation.” The mural was considered “symbolic of the company’s aims in their particular field of effort.”
By 1920, the United Fruit Company had single handedly replaced King Cotton with Top Banana and had amassed a fleet of ships - dubbed the “Great White Fleet” by Teddy Roosevelt because of their heat deflecting white color. In Men of the Sea (pub. 1992, p. 267), the author writes: the ships “were painted all white with a stack of buff red and black with a white diamond in the center.”
William Woodward is considered the most important painter in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the early part of the 20th century.
Neal Auction Company’s William Woodward painting is expected to fetch upwards of $75,000 when offered at auction on November 19, 2011.