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A Gift for the Ages

The legacy of Laura Simon Nelson

Published: June 1, 2024
Last Updated: June 7, 2024

A Gift for the Ages

Gift of Laura Simon Nelson, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Laurence Christie Edwardson, Portrait of Laura Simon Nelson, 1971. Oil on Masonite.

The Louisiana art world lost one of its brightest lights last November with the death of Laura Simon Nelson at nearly one hundred years old. A Baton Rouge native, Nelson was dedicated to her faith, children, and collection of Louisiana art. As a young mother, she fell in love with the work of William and Ellsworth Woodward, professors at the art schools of Tulane University and Newcomb College. She collected many of their original drawings, as well as etchings from William’s son Carl Woodward. 

Following the Woodwards’ passion for art, education, and preservation, Nelson and her then husband, Dr. James Nelson, sought to acquire art made in Louisiana and to foster the careers of local artists. Now, thanks to their efforts, many of those artists—including Robert Rucker, Laurence Christie Edwardson, and Wayman Elbridge Adams—are represented in major collections. Most of all, Nelson collected with her heart. She sought pieces that sang to her, in antique shops and attics and on the fences of Jackson Square.   

Nelson entrusted her collection of over five hundred pieces of fine and decorative arts to The Historic New Orleans Collection, putting them on long-term loan to the institution in 1995, and she made annual gifts of artworks to join our permanent holdings. Her final gift, totaling seventy-eight works, will come from her estate this year. Among the Laura Simon Nelson Collection are some of THNOC’s greatest treasures, including Ellsworth Woodward’s Backyard in Covington. The collection also includes some lovely mysteries—portraits of sitters whose identities have been lost to time. Five such works—including a 1912 portrait of a woman wearing spectacles, by Alexandre Alaux—are on view through October 6 at 520 Royal Street as part of the exhibition Unknown Sitters 

Nelson’s collection of Newcomb pottery became the foundation of THNOC’s substantial holdings related to craft from Newcomb College. More broadly, the artworks and records comprising her collection have inspired scholarship in Louisiana art, adding to documentation of portraiture, landscapes, and artistic styles practiced in the state. “A gracious and unassuming woman, Laura wished her art collection to be made accessible to the public for viewing and further study,” observed recently retired curator Judith H. Bonner, who worked closely with Nelson over the years. “Her donation immediately led to an increased awareness of Louisiana art.” 

Laura Simon Nelson believed that art was for everyone and sought to share her collection as a document of humans’ creative genius. THNOC is honored to have been entrusted with this mission.