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Nineteenth-century Frames

Who’s In and Who’s Out? War News from Mexico and the Framing of Evil

De l’intérieur ou de l’extérieur du cadre ? La représentation du Mal dans War News from Mexico
Alan Hirsch

Résumés

Dans le tableau de Richard Caton Woodville de 1848, War News from Mexico, onze personnages se pressent à l’intérieur et autour d'un portique. Huit hommes blancs sont au même plan physique et réagissent à l’annonce de la victoire américaine dans la guerre du Mexique. Trois autres personnages (un homme noir et une jeune fille noire ainsi qu’une femme) se situent à l’extérieur du portique. Le fait que les Noirs, qui ont été le plus directement touchés par la guerre, soient ignorés par les Blancs placés au-dessus d’eux, appelle une lecture politique de l’œuvre. La géométrie du tableau suggère qu’il s’agit également d’un tableau sur la peinture. Le portique rectangulaire évoque une toile et il se pourrait que l’homme assis à gauche soit Woodville lui-même. Tout comme le portique rectangulaire évoque une toile, il en va de même pour le journal, parfaitement centré dans le portique. On peut donc y voir une toile dans une toile dans une toile. L’exclusion des Noirs de la célébration est le reflet de leur exclusion du journal lui-même, produit par et pour les Blancs. L’artiste (le bras droit évoquant l’acte de peindre) observe la scène qu’il va cadrer pour nous. L’œuvre réaffirme les notions d’intérieur et d’extérieur : les hommes blancs au sein des piliers du pouvoir et contrôlant le discours ; les Noirs et les femmes, négligés dans les marges et à leur merci ; et l’artiste, occupant la position distincte de l’étranger à l’intérieur. Si les artistes influencent nos cadres de référence, la conscience qu’a Woodville de son pouvoir (et de son impuissance, puisqu’il ne pouvait guère mettre fin à l’esclavage) explique en partie l’élément le plus singulier du tableau : une plume de paon attachée au chapeau de l’homme noir. Dans le mythe d’Argus, le géant aux cent yeux gagne les faveurs de Junon en utilisant ses capacités hyper-optiques à son profit. Pour le commémorer, la déesse fait conserver ses yeux dans une queue de paon. Cette évocation allégorique des récompenses de la vigilance visuelle incarne le méta-cadrage de War News.

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Texte intégral

1On the bottom of Richard Caton Woodville’s iconic painting War News from Mexico lies a curious detail: a peacock feather attached to a hat.1 Could this quirky item provide a key to deciphering the painting? The title of the painting refers to America’s war with Mexico, and the newspaper read by the centermost character presumably reports the war’s successful conclusion in February 1848, the year War News appeared. For well over a century, War News was seen as celebrating America’s military victory and America itself. In recent years, however, art historians have questioned that interpretation, noting the implications of the Mexican-American War for slavery (American success in the war assured its expansion) and the forlorn black figures at the bottom of the painting (Pohl 2002, 190; Honour 1989, 75; Wolff 2002, 109; Johns 1991, 122; Wright 2014, 181).

2The present essay expands on that growing recognition, arguing that the architecture of the painting (a group of white males within its central framing, and several blacks and females marginalized outside), combined with other internal as well as external evidence, subverts any sense of the painting as patriotic and celebratory. To the contrary, the painting condemns slavery and warns about trouble ahead for America. It also does much more. War News from Mexico lacerates the artist and his family and, in addition, the viewer. Woodville knew that the meaning of his painting would be missed, and he wove that anticipated oversight into a deeper meaning.

3War News depicts eleven people crammed within or around the portico of a building. A “Post Office” sign is affixed to the building while the porch roof reads “American Hotel.” The office/hotel hybrid did exist back then, and Woodville sets the scene there for good reason. In the nineteenth century, people picked up the newspaper at the post office, a common gathering place for the politically engaged. But the hobnobbing involved only locals, whereas hotels witnessed interaction with outsiders. By suggesting both post office and hotel, and designating it the American Hotel, Woodville evokes a national reaction to current events.

4War News’ sense of place is also metaphorical: the setting is “conspicuously stage-like” and the vignette has a theatrical feel (Groseclose 2000, 75). The figures enact a drama related to the historical moment and national character.

5Eight white men form a central group, reacting to good news about the Mexican-American War in the newspaper held by the center-most character. Three people outside the portico can be considered a secondary group: a black man seated on a lower step, a black girl standing next to him and, at the far right of the canvas, a white woman inside the building looking out a window. The careful framing reifies the notion of inside and outside: white men within the pillars of power and dominating discourse; blacks and women, overlooked in the margins.

6Reflecting the “meticulous geometry” (Heyrman 2012, 19) emphasized at the Düsseldorf Academy where Woodville studied, the arrangement includes numerous rectangles: the portico, the newspaper, the steps at the base of the building, the planks on the back wall, the notices on the pillar and planks, the signs “post office” and “American Hotel,” and the window panes. Woodville achieves a symmetrical chiaroscuro effect: light falls on the left post of the portico, whereas the right lies in shadow; the opposite maintains in the foreground, where the left lies in shadow and the right finds light.

War News in Dialogue

  • 2 James Goodwyn Clonney, Politicians in a Country Bar (1844), oil on canvas, 54.6 × 63.5 cm, Fenimore (...)

7War News from Mexico is one of many American genre paintings in the 1840s featuring a group activity involving people from different generations, several of which include one or more blacks excluded from the activity. The earliest, James Goodwyn Clonney’s Politicians in a Country Bar, a painting held at the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown (New York), depicts four white men in a tavern engaged in political discussion, while a black man and white woman occupy the respective edges of the canvas, apart from the discourse in the center.2 Two of the white men gesture extravagantly in lively debate. The black man stands by the doorway with an open-mouth gape suggesting arousal from the argument. To contemporary eyes, his exclusion from the bar-room banter is painful, mirroring blacks’ broader exclusion from mainstream society. However, Clonney does not prioritize progressive sentiments. The black man’s goofy grin detracts from viewer sympathy (Johns 1991, 122: the black figure is said to be “comic or annoying”).

8Blackface minstrelsy was a form of white entertainment popular at the time, in which demeaning stereotypes of blacks were played for laughs. These images made their way into many visual works that included blacks, like Clonney’s, with broad grins suggestive of simple-mindedness. In general, most genre painters depicted blacks unflatteringly, often as lazy or cretinous (Brownlee 2012, 10).

9The same cannot be said of Woodville, whose first black figure appears in The Card Players (Fig. 1), two years after Politicians. A third-party has been called in to adjudicate a dispute during a card game. He appears to be in cahoots with the player to the right, who has a card peeking out from under his leg. The painting’s fourth figure, a black man, sits behind the other player – presumably his master. The black man takes in the action with a knowing glance and hint of a smile, perhaps taking pleasure in his master receiving condign punishment. His presence reminds us that there are greater injustices than a card swindle.

Fig. 1: Richard Caton Woodville, The Card Players (1846), oil on canvas, 47 × 63.5 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., 55.175.

Fig. 1: Richard Caton Woodville, The Card Players (1846), oil on canvas, 47 × 63.5 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., 55.175.

© Detroit Institute of Arts. Image Credit: https://dia.org/​collection/​card-players-65442

10If The Card Players marks an advance in the depiction of blacks from Clonney’s grinning simpleton (and most depictions of blacks in American painting theretofore), William Sidney Mount’s The Power of Music, the next year, represents a larger step forward (fig. 2).

  • 3 There are biographical reasons to resist seeing the painting as protesting racial separation: Mount (...)

11A white man in the interior of a barn plays violin, accompanied by two other white men. Standing outside the door, a black man listens to the music with satisfaction. To contemporary eyes, the scene may portray poignant exclusion. But especially in light of Mount’s personal love of music, we can see the scene as inclusive – depicting the power of music to produce joy in all people.3 A golden glow suffuses the atmosphere and the objects strewn inside and outside the barn interior reinforce a connection between the white men and the black. An axe and water bottle beside the black man suggest he is taking a break from work. Inside the barn, a pitchfork rhymes with the fiddler’s bow, the dual implements suggesting that the white men, too, are farm folk engaged in recreation. The black man and the white man standing just inside the barn maintain almost identical poses (legs crossed and crooked arm in coat pocket), reinforcing their connection.

Fig. 2: William Sydney Mount, The Power of Music (1847), oil on canvas, 43.4 x 53.5 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fig. 2: William Sydney Mount, The Power of Music (1847), oil on canvas, 43.4 x 53.5 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art.

© Cleveland Museum of Art. Image credit: https://www.clevelandart.org/​art/​1991.110

  • 4 Arguably The Power of Music is about both community and exclusion: see Scott 2004, 156. (“Music joi (...)

12Still, we should not dismiss the less uplifting side of the scene. The rectangular barn interior and door evoke canvases, and the whites and the black each occupy their own. The “community” created by the music is unknown to (and likely undesired by) the white men. But regardless of whether we focus on the black man’s inclusion or exclusion, the painting’s sympathies with him are clear.4 Especially in comparison to the demeaning depictions of blacks common at the time, The Power of Music’s treatment of race is clearly progressive (Johns 1991, 120: The Power of Music “changed the very terms in which the social meanings of black males might be imaged”).

13War News from Mexico, painted the next year, imports the structure of its predecessor (a group activity with a black outside the canvas-evoking communal space) but avoids its uplifting aspect. While The Power of Music suggests that music can produce universal joy, the same can hardly be said for the politics of the Mexican War. Since American success in the war assured the expansion of slavery (for which reasons abolitionists opposed the war and most pro-slavery advocates supported it), it makes sense that the blacks in War News do not share the ebullience displayed by some of the whites. War News depicts an emotional zero-sum game: whites are giddy at the news; the blacks anything but.

14If War News can be seen as in dialogue with Mount’s work from the previous year, its vignette harkens back more directly to Clonney’s Politicians in a Country Bar. The blacks in War News, like the one in Politicians four years earlier, seem absorbed by the political discourse from which they are excluded. Both works also include a woman in the distance, reinforcing the sense of marginalization. But in Politicians, the injustice of exclusion seems a collateral fact emerging from quasi-realistic depiction of an entertaining scene. By contrast, the black figures in War News evince a thoughtfulness missing from Clonney’s, and are thus presumed capable of fully understanding the injustice of their exclusion (See Johns, 122, noting Woodville’s and Mount’s black figures’ “psychological interiority”).

15A sense of injustice pervades War News, starting with the black figures’ shabby attire – the man wears faded patched pants, untied shoes, and no socks; the barefoot girl a tattered dress. The injustice of their exclusion is accentuated by the theatrics of the man holding the newspaper and the hat-swinger behind him. They celebrate flamboyantly while the blacks look on with muted pain. The whites’ whooping highlights the tragedy of the blacks’ position.

16Moreover, Woodville has cropped the picture so as to decapitate an American eagle on the sign on the building’s porch roof. The headless eagle splits the lettering in “American,” evoking the nation’s divisions. Yet, next to the eagle we see the Latin “unum,” from E Pluribus Unum – “from many one.” The truncated symbol of America and explicit dividing of “American,” juxtaposed with the “unum” (one), suggest that the nation’s divisions are at war with its ideals.

17Yet for well over a century, War News was seen as celebrating America’s military victory. As noted in the introduction, art historians today have begun to see things differently, remarking the implications of the Mexican-American War for slavery and the black figures excluded from the communal response to news that affects them directly (Pohl 2002, 190; Honour 1989, 75; Wolff 2002, 109; Johns 1991, 122; Wright 2014, 181). What has not been observed, however, is the converse: the whites are affected by the blacks’ situation. In ignoring the blacks as they celebrate the Mexican War, they show themselves oblivious to the bloodier, more consequential war on the horizon. While no one at the time of War News could know that America’s Civil War would commence little more than a decade later, opponents of the Mexican War did warn that the expansion of slavery would imperil the union. War News imbues that warning with a biting irony: the white men cheer a triumph that could hasten something horrible.

18The color of the black figures’ clothing reinforces a sense of, if not foreboding, at least something amiss. The girl, with black skin and white dress, embodies racial tension, and the man’s bright red shirt, which stands out amidst the painting’s somber tones, is redolent of blood. That together the two black figures wear red, white, and blue underscores their relevance within the “American Hotel” and makes painfully ironic the patriotically zealous celebration of the war by the white figures and (by extension) white America.

19We must also keep sight of another character: the newspaper, which serves as the pictorial center of the painting and catalyst for its vignette (see Pohl 2002, 190; Tyler 1993, 101; Husch 2000, 61-63; Wolf 1984, 330-33). Historians of the nineteenth century emphasize the democratizing quality of newspapers, bringing news with more immediacy to more people, thereby expanding political participation. But that is not the whole story. That the celebration within the American Hotel excludes the blacks mirrors the fact that the newspaper itself was no more democratic than the community it helped frame: it was produced by and for whites (See Groseclose 2000, 76: the newspaper in War News is presumably “white-male dominated” and “more concerned with hierarchies than homogeneities”).

Family Drama

20According to family lore, the elderly man seated at the right is Woodville’s great-uncle Richard Caton (Grubar 1966, 113). Across from him, at the lower left of the portico, sits a well-dressed man. Although surprisingly unremarked, that man could be Woodville himself, or at least a stand-in for the artist. His arm is cocked in a painterly position, and holds a match, perhaps suggestive of the illumination an artist provides. The match in one hand and cigarette in other give him an air of sophistication that contrasts with the undignified whooping of the central figures. He is the only figure presented in pure profile, with the exposed side of his face covered by shadow. Moreover, the seated man appears younger than virtually all of the other figures – Woodville was just 23 in 1848.

21One of Woodville’s self-portraits, also painted in 1848, buttresses this conjecture (Fig. 3). To be sure, the seated man in War News seems to lack facial hair: the real-life Woodville, at least at the time of the self-portrait, sported a full beard. However, one item pointedly connects the two: the stylish, checkered pants. That Woodville should portray himself with similar attire to the figure in War News who, for reasons noted, evokes an artist, supports the notion that the seated man in War News represents Woodville himself, whether or not there is a literal likeness.

Fig. 3: Richard Caton Woodville, Self-Portrait with Flowered Wallpaper (1848), oil on canvas, 23.5 x 18 cm, The Walters Art Museum.

Fig. 3: Richard Caton Woodville, Self-Portrait with Flowered Wallpaper (1848), oil on canvas, 23.5 x 18 cm, The Walters Art Museum.

©The Walters Art Museum. Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​35049/​self-portrait-with-flowered-wallpaper/​

  • 5 Significantly, infrared analysis shows that Woodville experimented with different possibilities of (...)

22This hypothesis opens up other aspects of the painting. Note the similarity of pose between the artist figure and the man standing above him – the right arm of each extends outward, mirroring one another almost perfectly (See Grubar, 113, noting the “monotonous exactitude” of the two figures’ arm motions). Especially given Woodville’s care in individualizing the gestures and poses of the eleven figures, the parallel arms presumably serve a purpose.5 The obvious effect is to connect these two figures. Could this hovering presence represent the artist’s father? The suspicion is hard to avoid when we note the figure’s resemblance to the man in another Woodville painting, Old ’76 and Young ’48, who is indeed, according to family lore, Woodville’s father (Grubar 1966, 140) (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum, detail.

Fig. 4: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum, detail.

© The Walters Art Museum. Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​33726/​old-76-and-young-48/​

  • 6 According to family lore, the title characters in Old ’76 and Young ’48 and veterans of the Mexican (...)

23The father figure in Old and Young looks substantially older than his counterpart in War News. William Woodville was 56 in 1848, which seems about right for the father in Old and Young but too old for the standing man in War News (who, as an independent matter, seems too young to be the father of the seated artist). But both paintings have an allegorical quality that counsels against a literal reading, and clearly were not intended as family portraits.6 My suggestion that the standing man in War News represents Woodville’s father does not imply a faithful depiction, just as the seated figure who, while evoking an artist (and linked by the checkered pants to Woodville’s self-portrait), does not amount to a literal self-portrait. I make the more modest claim that these characterizations have a meaningful biographical component or inspiration.

24William Woodville disapproved of his son’s decision to leave America and pursue an art career (Wolff 2002 17, 21). The father figure in War News stares in the direction of the artist figure but does not seem to be looking at him. One might say he “oversees” his son, and the pun, with its evocation of the overseer of slaves, suggests a possible marriage of meanings embedded within War News. Could the painting twine a national drama and family drama into a joint critique? Both involve superior forces (nation and father) bullying those in their dominion (slaves and son) while overlooking their humanity. In the case of the Woodvilles, that overlooking would have meant the failure of the father to accept the son’s profession and identity.

25If the painting can be seen as lacerating Woodville’s father, and linking him to America’s national sins, it may simultaneously wage an apologia on behalf of the artist’s family. At the outset I divided the painting’s figures into two groups: the central group of eight (white men) and the marginalized group of three (two blacks and a white woman). We can sub-divide the central group. First, four figures respond directly to the newspaper (Three look at it, while the man talking to the older man points to it, conveying that it is the source of the information he imparts). These four figures form an inner circle, surrounded by four men. Three of the four on the outside we have identified, at least tentatively and somewhat metaphorically – Woodville, his father, and great-uncle. The members of the inner circle gesture broadly, evoking actors on this stage. The other four maintain serious, less theatrical expressions. It is tempting to see the inside group of eight figures as divided into two groups: fictional characters and Woodvilles.

26Within this scheme, one figure in the central group remains unaccounted for: the man standing to the far right. Is he fictional or a Woodville? Symmetry suggests the latter. This man, if a Woodville, evens the count at four Woodvilles and four actors, with the four Woodvilles on the perimeter and four actors in the center. The unidentified man occupies the position symmetrical to the artist figure (next to the right pillar, while the artist leans against the left), and is the other relatively young male figure. Could he represent Woodville’s younger brother, William?

  • 7 Woodville’s portrait of Johnston the previous year confirms the matter.

27A further symmetry supports this conjecture and opens up another layer of meaning. The four figures who may plausibly be inferred to be Woodvilles fail to celebrate the war news, maintaining serious expressions suggesting concern. That links them with the three figures outside the porch, one of whom, the white woman, was clearly based on Woodville’s servant, Maria Johnston (Grubar 1966, 113).7 Johnston’s dual role as Woodville connection and marginalized figure links the two groups – the outsiders and the Woodvilles, quasi-outsiders inside. War News could be seen to depict a slavery-tainted America in which the Woodvilles were not complicit.

28While no direct information about the Woodvilles’ politics is extant, we know that relatives and friends of the family included abolitionists. Charles Carroll, the father-in-law of Woodville’s great uncle and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while himself a slaveholder introduced legislation in the Maryland Senate to abolish slavery. Robert Goodloe Harper, Woodville’s cousin, was one of Maryland’s leading abolitionists. Ditto John H.B. Latrobe, a family friend who commissioned one of Woodville’s best-known works, Politics in an Oyster House (See Papenfuse 1997, 73-75, discussing Harper-Latrobe-Woodville connection).

  • 8 There was additional basis for Woodville feeling guilt about his family’s relationship to slavery. (...)

29And yet, has Woodville really acquitted himself and his family? The blacks and females are spectators to the immoral spectacle enacted on the stage of the American Hotel. They have little choice in the matter. But the Woodvilles are on stage, participants in the national drama. While they do not join the celebration, they do not actively oppose it. All four Woodvilles, in contrast to the non-Woodvilles on the portico, are tight-lipped – their silence double-edged, suggesting non-support but also non-resistance to the war and slavery.8

Foreign Influence

30The presence of Woodville at War News American Hotel may seem incongruous given his absence from America at the time. That absence, or rather his presence elsewhere, is critical to understanding War News. In several respects the painting seems alien to the American genre painting tradition, e.g., the scene is busier and atmosphere darker than most anything by Woodville’s contemporaries in America. So too, the theatricality and stage-like setting of the vignette was more characteristic of Woodville than other American genre painters (Rockman 2012, 33: “Gestures to the theatre would distinguish Woodville’s work”).

  • 9 War News was “the first nineteenth-century painting by an American artist to touch, albeit rather g (...)

31Thematically, too, Woodville went well beyond his American predecessors. To question slavery was deeply subversive by the conservative, patriotic standards of American genre painting.9 These painters depended for success, if not artistic survival, on the patronage of the American Art-Union, which sought works projecting feel-good patriotism and eschewed charged political issues.

  • 10 See Deshmukh 1983, 455 (discussing connection between Düsseldorf genre painting and theatre).

32Woodville’s departure from American artistic norms should not shock us, however, given that he was abroad during his formative artistic years, including when he painted War News. Those features of the work that fall outside the American tradition fit snugly within the tradition in which Woodville found himself, in Düsseldorf, starting in 1845.10 In the years before Woodville’s arrival, artists in Düsseldorf “developed a new type of genre painting” that made veiled political statements in theatrical settings (Gordon 1982, 5).

33Particularly revealing is Woodville’s relationship to Johann Peter Hasenclever, a prominent German genre painter and left-wing activist. A number of Woodville’s genre scenes, find direct precedent in works by Hasenclaver. In several works, Hasenclever mocks the notion (widespread in Germany) of the newspaper as purveyor of the Enlightenment ideals of learning, reflection, and self-government. In his quasi-satirical “reading room” paintings, each reader enjoys his own newspaper and the private luxury carries a social cost. Each reader is absorbed in his own world, so much so that one in Lesegesellschaft fails to notice a dog consuming his victuals.

  • 11 Jochen Wierich notes that as joint members of the Crignic, Woodville and Hasenclever “would have ex (...)

34Woodville and Hasenclever belonged to a small group of artists (the “Crignic”) and Hasenclever’s influence on War News can be inferred. Many aspects of Woodville’s arrangement find clear roots in Hasenclever’s better-known works, including: a theatrical group response to news in a newspaper; a mingling of caricatured and realistic characterizations; the pairing of a central group and secondary group; and lightheartedness coexisting with serious political overtones.11

  • 12 For background about these works, see Geppert & Soechting 2003.

35Some overlaps are strikingly specific. In Hasenclever’s Das Lesekabinett and Lesegesellschaft, a map prominently displayed on the wall serves as reminder of the war in the Balkans, a recurring headline item in Germany in 1843.12 These paintings could have been titled War News from the Balkans. But Woodville’s work, five years later, features two crucial differences. His figures make a group response to a single newspaper in contrast to Hasenclever’s readers’ individual absorption, and Hasenclever’s expressionless readers evince no concern about the war whereas members of the inner group in War News react with gusto. If Hasenclever depicts an apathetic, atomized citizenry, Woodville suggests that a zealous, public-spirited group can also be problematic.

  • 13 Hasenclever’s political sympathies were well known and some of his paintings received the imprimatu (...)

36Hasenclever’s newspaper readers and Woodville’s mirror one another in an important respect. The war in the Balkans is not the only thing that fails to excite Hasenclever’s readers. Any painting in 1843 in Düsseldorf revolving around the newspaper, particularly one by an outspoken leftist like Hasenclever,13 almost certainly refers to another public event as well: the Prussian authorities’ ban on a prominent newspaper in January 1843 following publication of an article by Karl Marx criticizing the government. That Hasenclever’s figures blithely enjoy their evening read, oblivious to the infringements on a free press that limit and threaten their reading options, is a damning irony echoing the newspaper readers in War News overlooking the injustice and threat in their midst.

  • 14 Groseclove further observes that German artists had varied political visions but their “single comm (...)
  • 15 For extended discussion of Hasenclever’s politics and art, see Boime 2007, 536-54.
  • 16 See Boime 1990, 355 (Hasenclever reinterpret[ed] genre as a dynamic social category” capable of ma (...)

37Hasenclever’s influence on Woodville is subset of a broader phenomenon: The Düsseldorf arts community’s political commitment (Honour 1989, 76-79). Hasenclever joined the Communist League in 1848, the year Woodville painted War News and a year of revolutionary upheaval throughout Europe. Caught up in the maelstrom, Düsseldorf artists formed their own group (the “Malkasten”), “conceived as an exemplar of the unification of Germany”14 (Groseclose 1973, 81). Woodville’s friend and compatriot Emanuel Leutze was the group’s first president, and Woodville himself a member. Artists joined street protests, and some, including Hasenclever, enlisted in the militia.15 Genre painters also used the canvas as a political platform.16

38Thus, as Woodville sat down to paint War News, he breathed the air of revolution in a land where genre painters took a stand. Of course, his American audience would be less interested in European convulsions than their own. Woodville gave them a work that ostensibly celebrated the nation’s most recent war even as it subtly raised the issue burning in his adopted nation and smoldering in his homeland: national unity. I have also suggested that an indictment of the artist’s family plays out on the portico, with the Woodvilles maintaining tight-lipped silence rather than resisting evil. Seen in the context of his life in Düsseldorf, it is understandable if a sense of complicity plagued Woodville. In contrast to his new community, which took up arms for their homeland, Woodville’s service to the cause of freedom and national unity was limited to the canvas. Worse, his painting concealed its progressive sentiments and buoyed supporters of the status quo.

The Sequel

39The year after War News, Woodville returned to the Mexican War and slavery in another highly personal work. In the aforementioned Old ’76 and Young ’48, a wounded veteran of the Mexican war argues with an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War, possibly his grandfather (fig. 5). Other family members observe from around a kitchen table while three black servants stand in the doorway. The young man’s spirited gesture suggests his enthusiasm for the recent conflict, and guides the viewer’s gaze to the portrait on the wall of a Revolutionary War soldier, perhaps the elderly man himself, by implication linking the latest war to America’s first and unquestionably heroic war.

Fig. 5: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum. © The Walters Art Museum.

Fig. 5: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum. © The Walters Art Museum.

Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​33726/​old-76-and-young-48/​

40But the one best positioned to celebrate the continuity between the two wars declines the invitation. The old man looks away from his interlocutor, with a sad countenance. Perhaps his generation of Americans believed they had fought the last war, achieving an independence that would usher in permanent peace. Or perhaps his disillusionment is more localized, as the old man considers the Mexican-American War ill-advised.

41The painting pleased both opponents and supporters of that war. Opponents regarded Old 76’s displeasure as the most telling signifier, whereas supporters focused instead on the noble Young ’48 (Johns 1991, 180-81). For opponents of the war, the painting pits hard-earned wisdom against callow youth; for supporters, a dapper young patriot against an embittered codger. Especially with the benefit of distance, the interpretation of the painting as anti-war seems more compelling.

42Young ’48’s attempt to link the newest war with the Revolutionary War requires him stretching across generations. A bust of George Washington (as well as a print of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence) hangs almost directly over the head of Old ’76, reinforcing the latter’s personal ties to the revolution. Young ’48 feels the zeal of someone caught up in battle and perhaps needing to rationalize his own painful sacrifice. Old ’76’s sober disillusionment reflects the long view of one present at the creation.

43Has his nation lived up to its promise? Old 76’s bearing suggests a man weighed down by age and the experience accompanying age. Woodville gives him a pained affect through the accumulation of small touches: the ponderous gaze toward unspecified space; the cane whose hard descent into the ground suggests where old soldiers end up; the slumped posture; immobile, shriveled hands; and, not least, his slippers and rumpled socks. While Young ’48 boasts military garb, the old man wears the worn-out breeches of his bygone era. The painting raises a troubling question: “Was the heroic legacy and millennial promise of the American Revolution surviving in the modern United States?” (Husch 1993, 99).

44In focusing on the conflict between the painting’s two eponymous figures, we should not ignore a third perspective. While the title draws attention to Young ’76 and Old ‘48, the painting’s careful geometry implies the prominence of someone else: the man who stands above and between the interlocutors and towers over them. This figure, presumably the father of Young ’48 and son of Old ’76, triangulates them in demeanor as well as position: He lacks his son’s zeal and his father’s disillusionment.

45A possible explanation for his neutrality is that he has not experienced war first-hand: he maintains the uncertainty of the uninitiated. But the assumption may be unfounded. If we take Old ’76 to be roughly 90 (making him fighting age during the Revolutionary War), the father figures to be somewhere between 45 and 65. If 55 or older, i.e., if born before 1795, he was of age to fight in the War of 1812. It is serendipitous that 1812 is exactly halfway between 1776 and 1848, a numerical correlative of the man’s mediating position between his father and son. Whether or not he fought in the War of 1812, it took place during his formative years. The vignette, then, may present the perspectives of three men familiar with three different conflicts. That, and their different phases of life, could account for their different attitudes as well as remind us that the nation seems unable to escape war, each generation producing a new one.

  • 17 See Rockman 2012, 29 (black figures in the margins “convey the characteristic qualities of white pr (...)

46The three generations of war and warriors reprise an irony I observed in connection with War News: all these figures, with their disparate histories and frames of reference, are united in overlooking the next war – as suggested by their obliviousness to the presence of the blacks in the doorway.17 Justin Wolff alludes to this point (in connection with Old ’76 and Young ’48). Referring to the black servants, he remarks that “the Civil War is there too, hidden” (Wolff 2002, 133). Wolff may call the Civil War “hidden” to avoid anachronism, as Old and Young preceded the Civil War by more than a decade. But there is a deeper, ironic sense in which “hidden” is the perfect word. Like the central figures in War News, those in Old and Young, representative of white society, are caught up in the Mexican War, unaware that a bloodier war lay around the corner. To viewers of the painting, the blacks were hidden in plain view: they and the sense of foreboding they augur are there to be seen, but most viewers did not see.

47As Elizabeth Johns has shown, doorway symbolism played a key role in nineteenth-century American genre painting (Johns 1991, 100-36). In the doorway in Old and Young, as in the margins of War News, stand black figures outside the painting’s principal frame and representing an overlooked threat to those within.

The Progressive Artist’s Conundrum

48Produced within a Düsseldorf tradition of political protest, War News observes white America overlooking the tragedy of slavery. But for well over a century these darker aspects of the painting were missed. The American Art-Union, which embraced War News (exhibiting it, engraving it, and distributing 14,000 copies), and audiences generally, saw it as celebrating America’s war victory, without recognizing the moral complications of that triumph or the warning of a gathering storm.

49A few contemporary critics praised the painting’s black figures, but only in terms of verisimilitude. One said “the negro figures are ridiculously good” (Morning Courier 1849) and the American Art-Union’s Bulletin noted the “poor old negro on the steps [. . .] treated with extraordinary fidelity to nature” (American Art-Union 1851, 17). A few decades later, an anonymous critic described War News as portraying “a group of men [. . .] listening to the host [. . .] devouring with his eyes the exciting news from the seat of war, which he reads to a curious and varied group of old and young” (Putnam’s Monthly 1870, 379). Note this description of a gathering of “men,” ignoring the two women and, almost certainly, the black man (the central figure does not read to him).

  • 18 For twentieth-century comments about the painting making no mention of race, see Grubar 1966, 118-1 (...)

50That attitude characterizes what was written about the painting until recently. Those who did not ignore the black figures altogether downplayed Woodville’s treatment of them.18 One art historian claimed Woodville “didn’t know what to do” with the blacks, and used them only for “pseudo-veritist balance” (Kaplan 1964, 4). As late as 1990, another claimed the blacks “barely relate to the main composition [. . .]. They are literally there to add ‘local color’” (Boime 1990, 103).

  • 19 Hills further asserted that War News “celebrate[s] the Mexican War” (Hills 1998, 331). As recently (...)

51The next year, Elizabeth Johns claimed that War News “insists that the viewer take notice of slavery […]” (Johns 1991, 122). This notion failed to account for almost 150 years of response, and went only so far as corrective. Seven years after Johns’s observation, a prominent art historian suggested that the painting’s inclusion of the black figures was actually part of its “message of the national unity needed for successful empire building”19 (Hills 1998, 331).

52On my reading of War News, Johns is correct about the importance of the black figures and the painting’s indictment of slavery. But if these aspects of the painting seem self-evident, they were somehow missed for most of the painting’s history and even by some art historians in recent times. Could the missing be central to the painting’s meaning?

53On a literal level, the seemingly lighthearted vignette depicts excitement over a war. On a deeper level, the painting depicts oversight – that of the white men on stage and the society they represent, who overlook the tragedy and consequences of slavery. That oversight was mirrored by the generations of viewers and commentators who overlooked these aspects of the painting. By hypothesis, Woodville expected them to do so, and their oversight reinforces his larger theme – the painting’s meta-metaphor.

54One could argue that Woodville’s intent hardly matters. In both his paintings about the Mexican-American War, the whites ignore the blacks and commentators ignored the implications – revealing phenomena regardless of the artist’s intentions. That said, there is evidence supporting conjecture that Woodville consciously embedded within War News a broad statement about oversight.

55For one thing, the oversight of the painting’s reference to slavery is one Woodville labored to achieve. The rectangular arrangement and symmetrical light effects combine with other features to center the viewer’s attention on [. . .] the center. The wide stance of the centermost man, along with his attention-grabbing gape and the elongated newspaper, make him and it visually dominant. Moreover, the central figure and/or newspaper are looked at intently by the figures on the perimeter. When our eyes wander to the figure seated on the left, or the man standing on the right, or the blacks and woman, their hard gaze directs us back to the center. If Woodville wished to insist that we notice slavery, he could have done so, but he made a different choice.

56As noted, he depended for commercial success on the American Art-Union, which promoted feel-good patriotism, not works reflecting or reinforcing disunion. If Woodville inhaled both the sense of political commitment expected of genre painters in Düsseldorf (where he worked) and the sense of avoiding controversy expected from his sponsors in America (where he sold his wares), it makes sense that he would produce works which lamented slavery while deflecting attention from that very fact. Finally, there is direct visual evidence that Woodville regarded oversight as part of the meaning of the painting.

The Peacock’s Feather

  • 20 Elizabeth Johns remarks its “poignant variance” with the man’s poverty (Johns 1991, 180). Gail Husc (...)

57Let us return to the peacock feather, next to the black man’s shoe and attached to his hat at the bottom of War New from Mexico. This detail, mostly ignored by art historians,20 represents partial verisimilitude. Woodville hews to realism in giving the man a straw hat, but not so the feather (Clark 1982, 40-42). While peacock feathers were commonplace in nineteenth-century attire (Johnston 2005, 198), adorning hats with feathers tended to be a statement of affluence and rank (see, e.g., McDowell 1992, 9-10, 114-15). Surveys of African-American fashion in the nineteenth century do not indicate the presence of such adornments (see, e.g., Foster 1997).

  • 21 See Honour 1989, 76 (the emphasis on the black figures’ poverty “is unusual at this date. The poor, (...)

58To be sure, there was an American tradition of the “black dandy” (exaggerated in theatre but rooted in real life) who, despite poverty, dressed stylishly (see, e.g., Miller 2009). Conceivably, Woodville plays to this stereotype and serves up the peacock feather to stigmatize foolish vanity (Husch 2000, 63: peacock’s feather as “an emblem of vanity and pride”). But this reading is at odds with the painting’s sympathetic treatment of the black figures. Woodville has gone out of his way not to overdress the blacks, who seem anything but vain.21 Moreover, he places the hat not on the man’s head, but by his foot where it is rarely noticed.

59The peacock’s feather may nevertheless carry a symbolic meaning. Its design closely resembles a human eyeball – no accident, since ancient mythology links the peacock feather with the eye (Ovid 1955, lines 723-24; book 1). According to Greek myth, Argus the hundred-eyed giant won over Juno by using his hyper-optic capacity for her benefit. To memorialize him, the goddess preserved his eyes in a peacock’s tail. The peacock feather embodies War News’ meta-meaning. Next to the blacks whose significance was long overlooked, in both the painting and the America the painting depicts, is an evocation of sight itself and the rewards of visual vigilance.

60Justin Wolff observes that “by having the picture frame be the ultimate rectangle in his telescoping geometry, Woodville implicates painting itself [. . .] managing within the four corners of his canvas to bring to life the influence his painting had on its viewers” (Woodville 2002, 104). I agree that the newspaper within portico within picture frame conveys the sense of War News as a painting about painting. I further agree that the painting echoes its own effect, i.e., the depiction of whooping over the war inspired whooping over the war. But the deepest significance of this self-referential quality may have less to do with “the influence his painting had on its viewers” than the influence it failed to have. Woodville’s harsh critique of America was celebrated for celebrating America. Knowing his meaning would be missed, Woodville wove the miss into a higher meaning.

61If he could not open his nation’s eyes to the horrors of slavery, he could make its closed eyes the issue. The failure to see – even what is right in front of us – is an affliction that helps produce evils like slavery. Woodville didn’t merely make that point but, with the unwitting assistance of generations of viewers, proved the point. That he did so while on the same stage enacting a family drama congruent with the national drama suggests the elusive complexity of this work.

62War News placed viewers inside the portico engaged in misguided celebration and walled out the victims of their myopia, the marginalized folks outside their frame of vision. Painting from one chaotic country but for another, and wishing to be well-received while staying true to his conflicted self, Richard Caton Woodville produced a work whose import transcended its historical circumstance and might someday be fully appreciated.

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Bibliographie

American Art-Union. Bulletin. Vol. 4, April 1851.

Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Civil Struggle 1848-71. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Boime, Albert. “Social identity and Political Authority in the Response of Two Prussian Painters to the Revolution of 1848.” Art History, vol. 13, issue 3 (Sept. 1990). 344–387.

Boime, Albert. The Art of Exclusion. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Brownlee, John Peter. American Encounters: Genre Painting and Everyday Life. Terra Foundation for American Art, 2012.

Clark, Fiona. Hats. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1982.

Deshmukh, Marion. “Between Tradition and Modernity: The Düsseldorf Art Academy in Early Nineteenth Century Prussia.” German Studies Review, vol. 6, no. 3 (Oct. 1983). 339–472.

Foster, Helen Bradley.“New Raiments of Self”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Berg, 1997.

Geppert, Stefan, and Dirk Soechting. Johann Peter Hasenclever, 1810 bis 1853, Ein Malerleben Zwischen Bedermeier und Revolution. Mainz: Zabern, 2003.

Gerdts, William H. “The Düsseldorf Connection.” In Grand Illusions: History Painting in America. Ed. William H Gerdts and Mark Thistlewaite, Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1988. 146–152.

Gordon, Eric. “Woodville’s Technique.” In New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville. Ed. Joy Peterson Heyrman. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2012. 65–81.

Gordon, Joy, et al. American Artists in Düsseldorf 1840-1865. Framingham: Danforth Museum, 1982.

Groseclose, Barbara. Emanuel Leutze, 1816-1868: Freedom is the Only King. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.

Groseclose, Barbara. Emanuel Leutze, 1816-68: A German-American History Painter. Ph.D diss., University of Wisconsin, 1973.

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Heyrman, Joy Peterson, ed. New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville. Baltomore: The Walters Art Museum, 2012.

Hills, Patricia. “The American Art Union as Patron for Expansionist Ideology in the 1840s.” In Art in Bourgeois Society, 1790–1850. Ed. Andrew Hemingway & William Vaughan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 314–339.

Honour, Hugh. The Image of The Black in Western Art. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hoopes, Donelson. The Düsseldorf Academy and the Americans. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1972.

Husch, Gail. “‘Freedom’s Holy Cause’: History, Religious and Genre Painting in America, 1840-1860.” In Picturing History. Ed. William Ayres. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993. 81–100.

Husch, Gail. Something Going: Apocalyptic Expectation and Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Painting. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2000.

Johns, Elizabeth. American Genre Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V & A Publications, 2005.

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McDowell, Colin. Hats: Status, Styles, and Glamour. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Miller, Monica. Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Moffatt, Frederick C. “Barnburning and Hunkerism: William Sidney Mount’s ‘Power of Music’.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 29, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 19–42.

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Papenfuse, Eric Robert. The Evils of Necessity: Robert Goodloe Harper and the Moral Dilemma of Slavery, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997. 73–75.

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Rockman, Seth. “An Artist of Baltimore.” New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville. Ed. Joy Peterson Heyrman. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2012. 27–38.

Scott, Kevin. Rituals of Race: Mount, Melville, and Antebellum America. Ph.D. diss., Purdue University, 2004, 156.

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Notes

1 https://crystalbridges.emuseum.com/objects/116/war-news-from-mexico?ctx=b2941dbe4f7573d0570a4ca54a3e3f39c032245b&idx=0 (accessed on 12 November 2023).

2 James Goodwyn Clonney, Politicians in a Country Bar (1844), oil on canvas, 54.6 × 63.5 cm, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. See https://collections.fenimoreart.org/objects/2020/politicians-in-a-country-bar?ctx=7855f6acb75ae37a55da94bdda83e9c627d5ecf2&idx=1 (accessed on 2 November 2023).

3 There are biographical reasons to resist seeing the painting as protesting racial separation: Mount opposed abolition and supported segregation. For background on Mount’s politics and love of music, see Moffatt 1994, 19-42.

4 Arguably The Power of Music is about both community and exclusion: see Scott 2004, 156. (“Music joins all the men in a common response [. . .] yet social and economic conventions still separate them [. . .]. [The music] creates a de facto community between transported men, but their individual histories and desires separate them, as does the barn door, and their community is unknown to them”).

5 Significantly, infrared analysis shows that Woodville experimented with different possibilities of the standing man’s arm position (Gordon 2012, 76).

6 According to family lore, the title characters in Old ’76 and Young ’48 and veterans of the Mexican-American War and Revolutionary War respectively, are Woodville’s brother William and great-uncle Richard. Grubar, 113. Neither served in war. Characters drawn from Woodville’s family in both paintings were apparently “based on” rather than portraits of real-life Woodvilles.

7 Woodville’s portrait of Johnston the previous year confirms the matter.

8 There was additional basis for Woodville feeling guilt about his family’s relationship to slavery. Woodville’s father and grandfather undertook many slaving voyages between Africa and the British Caribbean. See Rockman 2012, 36.

9 War News was “the first nineteenth-century painting by an American artist to touch, albeit rather gingerly, on the sensitive issue of slavery” (Honour 1989, 79).

10 See Deshmukh 1983, 455 (discussing connection between Düsseldorf genre painting and theatre).

11 Jochen Wierich notes that as joint members of the Crignic, Woodville and Hasenclever “would have exchanged and critiqued each another’s sketches” (Wierich 2012, 47).

12 For background about these works, see Geppert & Soechting 2003.

13 Hasenclever’s political sympathies were well known and some of his paintings received the imprimatur of Karl Marx. See Deshmukh 1983, 459-61.

14 Groseclove further observes that German artists had varied political visions but their “single common desire was a unification of the German states” (Groseclove 1975, 30-31). See also Gordon 1982, 32 (“social life and social protest played equal parts in the artists’ community”).

15 For extended discussion of Hasenclever’s politics and art, see Boime 2007, 536-54.

16 See Boime 1990, 355 (Hasenclever reinterpret[ed] genre as a dynamic social category” capable of making a “social and political statement”). See also Gerdts 1988, 128.

17 See Rockman 2012, 29 (black figures in the margins “convey the characteristic qualities of white privilege, namely, the ability to see – and not see – people of color living in close proximity”).

18 For twentieth-century comments about the painting making no mention of race, see Grubar 1966, 118-19.

19 Hills further asserted that War News “celebrate[s] the Mexican War” (Hills 1998, 331). As recently as 2007, Albert Boime reiterated his earlier suggestion that the black figures “just barely earn a place in the composition” (Boime 2007, 407).

20 Elizabeth Johns remarks its “poignant variance” with the man’s poverty (Johns 1991, 180). Gail Husch says, “[p]erhaps the peacock feather that sweeps incongruously from the straw hat in the foreground serves, in part, as an emblem of human vanity and pride” (Husch 2000, 63). Most commentators make no mention of the feather.

21 See Honour 1989, 76 (the emphasis on the black figures’ poverty “is unusual at this date. The poor, in genre scenes painted on both sides of the Atlantic, were almost invariably made to look picturesque, generally well scrubbed and dressed in their Sunday best”).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Richard Caton Woodville, The Card Players (1846), oil on canvas, 47 × 63.5 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., 55.175.
Crédits © Detroit Institute of Arts. Image Credit: https://dia.org/​collection/​card-players-65442
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/15078/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 120k
Titre Fig. 2: William Sydney Mount, The Power of Music (1847), oil on canvas, 43.4 x 53.5 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art.
Crédits © Cleveland Museum of Art. Image credit: https://www.clevelandart.org/​art/​1991.110
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/15078/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Fig. 3: Richard Caton Woodville, Self-Portrait with Flowered Wallpaper (1848), oil on canvas, 23.5 x 18 cm, The Walters Art Museum.
Crédits ©The Walters Art Museum. Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​35049/​self-portrait-with-flowered-wallpaper/​
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/15078/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Fig. 4: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum, detail.
Crédits © The Walters Art Museum. Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​33726/​old-76-and-young-48/​
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/15078/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Titre Fig. 5: Richard Caton Woodville, Old ’76 and Young ’48 (1849), oil on canvas, 53.66 x 68.26 cm, The Walters Art Museum. © The Walters Art Museum.
Crédits Image Credit: https://art.thewalters.org/​detail/​33726/​old-76-and-young-48/​
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/15078/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
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Alan Hirsch, « Who’s In and Who’s Out? War News from Mexico and the Framing of Evil »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/15078 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/sillagescritiques.15078

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Auteur

Alan Hirsch

Williams College

Alan Hirsch is Instructor in the Humanities at Williams College. He has an MA from Williams Masters’ Program in the History of Art as well as a JD from Yale Law School. He is the author of “Eastman Johnson’s Guilt,” Source: Notes in the History of Art (Spring 2015), and has presented a paper at an AAH Convention in Manchester, England: “Painter, Critic, Poet: The Creative Convergence of Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, John Ruskin, Henry James, and Wallace Stevens”.

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