New Eyes On America: The Genius Of Richard Caton Woodville At Mint Museum

Photo: Artist: Richard Caton Woodville

Painted in Germany during the contentious conflict with Mexico, Woodville’s “War News From Mexico,” 1848, his most famous work, catalogs the reaction of different American types to a dispatch from the front. A marvel of detail and perception and widely circulated by the American Art Union in a large folio engraving, “News” generated discussion about American expansionism and the fate of the African Americans in the lower right of the picture. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Genre painting — depictions of everyday life — came to the fore in America in the 1830s. With the American Revolution several decades in the past, there was time and inclination for artists to observe their immediate surroundings. Moreover, the populist tone set by Andrew Jackson’s presidency endowed the common man with new dignity and a new sense of worth, in effect establishing an atmosphere favoring the kind of people and life that genre images represent.

The first substantial painter to specialize in genre scenes, William Sidney Mount (1807–1868), found a world of subjects in his native Long Island and dispassionately chronicled the quaint ways of rural folk. Engravings of Mount’s paintings made his work widely known.

Among the next important genre painters the standout was Richard Caton Woodville (1825–1855), whose early death prevented him from realizing his full potential. His work is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “New Eyes on America: the Genius of Richard Caton Woodville,” already seen at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and on view at the Mint Museum through November 3. Curated by the Walters’ Joy Peterson Heyrman, this first major Woodville exhibition since 1967 features his 16 known paintings, as well as prints, illustrated books and other artifacts that place his career in historical context. As outgoing Walters executive director Gary Vikan observed, Woodville’s “paintings tell American stories and invite close looking.”

A Baltimore native, Woodville was born into a wealthy, well-connected family with successful business enterprises. The city at the time was bustling with commercial activity and expanding rapidly in population and land area.

After receiving a classical education among boys of similar social standing, Woodville enrolled at the University of Maryland medical school, but left after a year. His pencil drawings from this time are “humorous portraits of priests and evocative sketches of schoolmates that show an early talent for capturing nuances of expression and subtleties of character,” says Heyrman.

Woodville’s tastes in art were formed in part by observing several Baltimore collections, notably Robert Gilmor’s famous trove of some 400 paintings, of which half were Dutch pictures like Jan Steen’s “Tavern Scene” and Gerard Ter Boch’s “Card Party.” Woodville reinterpreted these traditional genre subjects later in his career. Mount’s “The Tough Story — Scene in a Country Tavern,” was “a thematic precedent for Woodville’s depictions of encounters among travelers in anonymous public interiors and an example to him of the wide distribution and attendant notice that reproductive technology made possible,” observes Heyrman.

One of Woodville’s earliest known genre canvases, “Scene in a Bar-Room,” depicting two scruffy, amiable companions seated and conversing in a rough tavern interior, was his first work to be exhibited at the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1845. It reflects the keen eye Woodville turned on the world around him during his two decades in Baltimore. As art historian Seth Rockman puts it, his home town “provided the artist with a storehouse of images to deploy as he completed his work abroad.”

In 1845, Woodville and his very young wife traveled to Dusseldorf, Germany, a center for studying anecdotal painting. He acquired sophisticated technical skills at the academy and then studied privately for five years. He hobnobbed with such American expatriate artists as Eastman Johnson and Emanuel Leutze. The latter mentored the young American and influenced him with his ideas about “modern history painting…[that was] scrupulously researched and infused…with contemporary meaning,” in the words of Cheekwood Museum curator Jochen Wierich.

Dusseldorf’s predilection for precise realism, smooth finish and anecdotal subjects reinforced Woodville’s prior predilections. “At the academy,” says Walters’ head of painting conservation Eric Gordon, “he absorbed the school’s highly polished, meticulous style and developed his skills in modeling forms with light and color and in confidently situating multiple figures in clearly legible spaces.”

In the German city, Woodville was influenced by what Heyrman describes as “an innovative group of painters who were elevating genre painting from low-brow depictions of lower-class life to a new synthesis with history painting, documenting the social-political concerns of workers and the emerging middle class for a new class of patrons.”

Sketches of American scenes that Woodville brought with him served as the basis for meticulous small paintings of middle-class life that reveal his unusual gift for incisive depictions of personality and place.

Early in his Dusseldorf sojourn, the young American painted a typical genre scene, “The Cavalier’s Return,” which played off contemporary romantic interest in Seventeenth Century English history. Meticulously painted in a sunlit room, a soldier returned from British civil wars meets his young child for the first time. Perhaps painted in response to interest in decorum and courtliness in a time of increasing concern about social changes spawned by urbanization, industrialization and immigration, it has little of the verve and animation of his American genre works.

After divorcing his first wife, Woodville married a fellow artist. In 1851 they moved to Paris, and two years later relocated to London, where he spent most of his few remaining years. He returned to the United States several times seeking additional material for paintings that he regularly sent to American venues instead of showing them in Europe. Woodville died in London of a (presumably accidental) morphine overdose; he was 30.

The paintings Woodville dispatched back to America gained him an eager audience. Although he spent most of his brief career in Europe, he is remembered primarily for his contemporary American genre scenes. With his sharp, discerning eye, Woodville depicted city folk as humble, sturdy, middle-class gentry who evoked a time when urbanites were untouched by the Industrial Revolution. His people were usually modest in dress and appeared like modest citizens who worked in shops. He also produced historical and literary genre works and a few portraits.

Woodville is generally considered a superior painter to Mount; as art historian E.P. Richardson noted, “Woodville drew more expressively than Mount, his color was not only fresh and clear but as solid as that of a Dutch little master.” After the American Art Union found willing customers for Woodville’s works, he, like Mount, became one of the first American genre artists to achieve financial success. “His canvases,” said art historian George M. Cohen, “were acceptable to the rising man of affairs since his subject matter was usually humorous and portrayed common man in a good light.”

Several of Woodville’s swatches of contemporary life showed groups of men engaged in ordinary rituals — “The Card Players,” the first painting he sent back to America, reprising popular European interpretations of cheating at cards, and “Waiting for the Stage,” one of his last known canvases, in which an older and younger man play cards in a tavern interior while another standing by sends signals to his young colleague. In the latter, Woodville created an intimate, nuanced image that is particularly noteworthy for the skillful handling of still life details.

During the contentious Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Woodville painted his most famous work, “War News from Mexico.” It shows a varied group of 11 people crowded excitedly around a man reading a newspaper with the latest dispatch from the warfront. The empathetic portrayal of two African Americans in tattered clothing suggests the artist’s awareness that their freedom is at stake and that the issue of slavery confronts and divides the nation.

Painted in Dusseldorf in 1848 when revolutionary activity roiled that city’s populace, “War News” was reproduced in 14,000 large engravings disseminated by the American Arts Union to subscribers and hung in middle-class parlors around the country. Later reproductions were issued by Paris-based Goupil & Co. Art historian Marie-Stephanie Delamaire points out that by the time Woodville moved to London in 1853 “he was not only one of Goupil & Co.’s most highly compensated artists, but also one of the most widely published — nationally and internationally — American painters of his time.”

Another highly popular work, painted the same year as “War News,” was “Politics in an Oyster House.” It shows two men conversing in the cramped confines of a Baltimore oyster house. The bearded young man holds his newspaper aside and leans across the table trying to make a point, but his verbal and animated gestures appear to have no effect on his more reserved, bald-headed companion. It is possible they are discussing the 1848 election and/or implications of the war with Mexico. This is a fine example of Woodville’s ability to describe the character of people and places interacting with one another.

Intergenerational conflict, a frequent Woodville theme, animates “Old ’76 and Young ’48,” in which a young man in military dress blues, wounded in the Mexican-American conflict, gestures at a very elderly, disinterested veteran of the Revolutionary War. They may well be discussing how American expansionism in the Southwest squares with the ideals of the founding fathers. As in “War News,” on the periphery of the vignette African American servants look into the comfortable, well-furnished parlor, well aware that they are subject to the politics of white men.

Recreating a dramatic scene with wit and economy, “The Sailor’s Wedding” captures the irritated demeanor of the magistrate interrupted at lunch, the conciliatory gesture of the bowing groomsman, the cocky pride of the sailor/groom, the demure, blushing bride and humble anticipation of the elderly members of the wedding party. “The situation,” said art historian Abraham A. Davidson, “is an appealing one, and most spectators could picture themselves or someone they knew within the situation.”

Late in his abbreviated career Woodville painted a moody, atmospheric portrait, “The Italian Boy With Hurdy-Gurdy,” depicting a poor youngster in worn clothing holding a wooden instrument against a dark crumbling wall and gazing at the viewer with half-closed eyes. The brushwork is vigorous and the palette dark. Unlike anything else in his oeuvre, this canvas suggests that the artist might have radically changed his style and subjects had he lived longer.

Woodville’s reputation faded after his early death and he remained neglected as the art world embraced more modern currents. But today there is increasing interest in artists such as Woodville in part because of the glimpses of past, everyday life their work contains.

It is a pleasure, through this splendid survey of his oeuvre and times, to return to Woodville’s enduringly interesting, carefully observed and rendered views of his homeland. As Heyrman concludes, “A unique synthesis of traditions and contemporary concerns informed the new eye he turned on America.”

The illustrated, 144-page catalog contains informative essays by Heyrman and other scholars that remove some of the mystery surrounding Woodville’s life and place his oeuvre in the context of his times. Published by the Walters and distributed by Yale University Press, it sells for $24.95, softcover.

The Mint Museum is at 2730 Randolph Road. For information, www.mintmuseum.org or 704-337-2000.

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