Greenwood, Marion (1909–1980)

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Greenwood, Marion (1909–1980)

American-born Mexican muralist, easel painter and printmaker . Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1909; died in Woodstock, New York, in 1980; left high school at age 15 to study at the Art Students League, New York; studied at the Académie Colarossi, Paris, France; married Robert Plate; no children.

Known primarily for her powerful murals, Marion Greenwood's career reflects an interesting progression of styles, beginning with the revolutionary fervor of her early work in Mexico, through the restrained and classical murals commissioned by the Federal Art Project during the 1930s, and culminating in her later independent murals which represent a freer, almost expressionistic, quality.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1909, Greenwood was a child prodigy who quit high school at the age of 15 to accept a scholarship at the Art Students League where she studied with John Sloan and George Bridgman. At 18, she made the first of several trips to Yaddo, a retreat for artists and writers in Saratoga Springs, New York. There, she painted portraits of artists-inresidence, like composer Aaron Copland and writer Waldo Frank. Still in her teens, Greenwood used the money she earned from painting the portrait of a wealthy financier to pay her way to Europe, where she studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris.

Returning to New York in 1930, she sketched theater portraits for The New York Times for a year before embarking on a trip to the Southwest to paint the Navajo Indians. Crossing the border to Mexico, Greenwood met the expatriate American artist Pablo O'Higgins, who encouraged her to try mural painting. Her initial mural of native life, painted on the wall of the Hotel Taxqueno, resulted in a commission from the Mexican government, the first ever granted to a woman. As her interest in the Mexican people deepened, Greenwood undertook an exhaustive study of the Tarascan Indians, which culminated in a 700-square-foot mural depicting Indian life for the University of San Hidalgo in Morelia. The authenticity of the work captured the attention of the head of the government mural program, who in 1934, hired her and her sister Grace Greenwood to work on a portion of a group mural at the central market and civic center in Mexico City (the Mercado Rodriguez). On the strength of this huge mural portraying peasant life, Greenwood, still in her 20s, became a legend in that country. "She could have been the queen of Mexico," said Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Back in the United States in 1936, Greenwood and her sister Grace were hired by the Treasury Relief Art Project to create wall painting for a housing project that architect Oscar Stonorov was designing in Camden, New Jersey. Greenwood chose a labor theme for her subject, producing an oil-on-canvas mural depicting the collective bargaining agreement between the Camden shipyard workers under the New Deal. Unfortunately, the mural, like many works of its type from the period, is now covered over. Other government commissions of this period included an oil mural for the post office at Crossville, Tennessee, and frescoes commissioned by the Federal Art Project for the Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn. Entitled Blueprint for Living (1940), the Red Hook work expressed an idealistic view of a harmonious future when everyone's basic needs would be met. Sadly, this mural was also painted over, though existing photographs show it to be an impressive work.

In 1937, Marion and Grace Greenwood joined the Architect, Painters and Sculptors Collaborative, whose membership included artists Concetta Scaravaglione , José de Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, and William Zorach, among others. The Collaborative, writes Charlotte Rubinstein , was "a group devoted, as were many such organizations in the thirties, to the idea of improving the lives of common people by providing them with a harmonious architectural environment." They designed a community center which they hoped to build for the 1939 World's Fair. Although the design was never executed, it was hailed as an advanced environmental concept.

During the war, Greenwood, together with Anne Poor , worked for the U.S. Army Medical Corps to produce a series of paintings depicting the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers. After the war, Greenwood concentrated on easel painting and prints, enjoying a period of self-expression free from the supervision and censorship of government agencies. Her continuing interest in different ethnic groups took her to Hong Kong, the West Indies, North Africa, and India, where she created a series of sketches and paintings.

In 1954, while a visiting professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Greenwood was commissioned to paint a large mural for the student center auditorium. Using the theme of Tennessee music, Greenwood created a rhythmic work interweaving black jazz, spiritual, country mountain music, banjo guitar, bull fiddle, and folk dance. Her last mural, created at Syracuse University in 1965, was dedicated to the women of the world, and combined studies from the drawing and paintings Greenwood made during her travels.

Greenwood was described as a high-spirited, adventuresome woman with a keen sense of humor. She spent her later years in an art colony in Woodstock, New York, with her husband Robert Plate. She died in 1980, while recovering from injuries incurred in an automobile accident.


Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. NY: Avon, 1982.

suggested reading:

Henkes, Robert. American Women Painters of the 1930s and 1940s: The Lives and Work of Ten Artists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

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Greenwood, Marion (1909–1980)

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