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Richard Caton Woodville—
Defining and Returning the Nation
to its Founding Principles

by Steve Carr

September 2012

Richard Caton Woodville, self-portrait

Starting in the mid 1840's an American painter working mostly in Europe, Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855) took-on the global anti-republican movement that was gaining steam. Republican forces in Europe were being crushed, empires were on the move, and even the sworn enemy of imperialism, the United States, invaded neighboring Mexico. Woodville wanted to confront his mostly American audience with how our society had changed and our unique role in the world was being abandoned. The closing of the National Bank by Andrew Jackson not only devastated industry, agriculture, and technology, but it was undermining the proud culture of progress and productivity. Where we once gave encouragement to young republics and even built international alliances to defend their sovereignty, we now launch military invasions against these same allies. Woodville often depicted this as a generational conflict using Revolutionary War veterans, symbolizing the intent of the Founding Fathers, who are now appalled and dismayed by these disgraceful turns of the younger generation.  

Born and raised in Baltimore, Woodville dedicated his short, but productive life to challenging the national drift away from progress and nation-building. He embraced controversy and took-on the biggest national battles of the day, often using a seemingly innocent pictorial narrative. Woodville's childhood was spent in a household occupied with long-running debates over national issues, and had a very Classical education of Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, philosophy, science, math, and geography. He spent one year in medical school before leaving to study art at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany. His painting style was influenced by the Dutch and Flemish tradition, but his themes were almost always American. He spent most of his professional career in Europe, and was well know across the United States since the American Art Union circulated 14,000 copies of his works. Woodville was killed in London at age 30 with an unfinished painting still on his easel. Today all we have is his British death certificate which states that he was killed “accidentally” by a lethal dose of morphine that was administered to him for “medicinal” purposes.

He was always proud of his family's role in the American Revolution. On his father's side Woodville was related to Charles Carroll (1737-1832), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, (who later introduced state legislation to abolish slavery in Maryland), and on his mother's side he was related to Maryland Governor Benjamin Ogle (1749-1809), an enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution, and a close friend to George Washington. Woodville's family was immersed in the “American System” agenda of development as it was instrumental in building some of America's first railroad and telegraph lines.

America's Anti-Republican Invasion of Mexico

Three of his earliest paintings are usually grouped together since they deal with the conflicted response to the 1846 US invasion of Mexico. As thoroughly elaborated in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, (actually formulated by President Monroe's Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) America's natural allies would be the struggling young republics in North and South America, and our only true enemy would be imperialism. Yet with one military adventure into Mexico, President Polk was able to violate both cornerstones to our foreign policy. In each of these three paintings the generation of the founding fathers are represented by old veterans of the American Revolution who are in complete dismay over the younger generation's disregard for the intent of the nation. To them the soul of the country was traded for a piece of real estate.

However, it should also be noted that the first of these three “Mexico” paintings (actually a watercolor) was started two years before Polk's Mexican-American War, while Woodville was still a medical student. Woodville initially started this series not to attack Polk's war on Mexico, but rather the 1835-1842 Seminole Wars started by President Andrew Jackson. Newspapers were filled with gruesome, detailed accounts of hand-to-hand combat by soldiers fighting their way through alligator-infested swamps in Florida. Losses were staggering on both sides, yet Jackson wanted to prolong the war. Early in the conflict military leaders developed a plan for a quick victory and requested additional troops in order to surround the enemy and force a surrender, but Secretary of War Lewis Cass refused the request. Jackson and Cass did not want the surrender of American Indians, but rather their extermination. Woodville did not have great love for the Indians but found himself more sympathetic to their plight, mostly out of disgrace over Jackson's treachery with treaties, forced relocations, and deliberate genocide.

“Melting Pot” Not Class Warfare

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851.

In 1845 Woodville attended the Düsseldorf Academy and entered a hotbed of republicanism leading up to Germany's 1848 attempted revolution. He was a regular at the frequent political meetings of the Malkasten (Paint Box) Club of fellow artists, which included Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), President of the Union of Düsseldorf Artists, and usually considered the most radical of the pro-republican artists there. (Today Leutze is perhaps most famous for his 1851 painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”) Woodville's only word of caution to his European friends was to warn of the manipulation to turn the revolution there away from the American model, and allow it to degenerate to class warfare. The many American scenes that Woodville painted for his American audience while in Düsseldorf were also done with his German audience in mind, offering the American “melting pot” idea as an alternative to the European class structure.

Yet, as noted above, Woodville always sought the most contentious issues of the day and his “melting pot” often took on a quality of pressure cooker. He deliberately intensified each conflict by crowding his figures in a very small space with no escape—usually not even an open window. Many artists at the Düsseldorf Academy participated in theatrical productions so composing a painting in a stage type setting may have been a natural impulse. His characters, drawn from different ethnic, social, generational, and political backgrounds, could be viewed as a dysfunctional group. Yet with so many seemingly irreconcilable differences, it is the effort to resolve bigger, national issues that becomes the main unifying force.

Nation-Building with the “American System” or
Jacksonian “Every Man for Himself”

President Andrew Jackson (who spent most of his “legal” career as a debt collector) eliminated the National Bank and made the country vulnerable to financial sharks, speculative bubbles, and foreign bankers. The culture of nation-building was fading. (In 1820 in Woodville's hometown of Baltimore, virtually every citizen owned stock in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, not in a get-rich-quick scheme, but out of their desire to build the first railroad to cross the Allegheny Mountains and a recognition of its importance for the nation and for the future of Baltimore.) Jackson's false god of quick profits was destroying the rational world of a proud nation of producers, and would eventually cause the Panic of 1837.

Many artists and writers recognized the social decay that this Jacksonian turn in the economy was causing. In 1840 Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Business Man” about a youth who has no hope of using his creative mind for productive uses, so he turns his energy to developing ever new ways of swindling his neighbors. In 1835 William Sidney Mount painted “Bargaining For A Horse” where a once prosperous farmer has neglected his farm (a shed is in disrepair, corn cribs are empty, etc.), yet he is determined to squeeze a handsome profit from the sale of his horse—with a pigeon strategically placed to suggest that the farmer has finally found a gullible customer. Woodville used several paintings of cardsharps and confidence men usually appearing in cluttered, disordered rooms where everything appears crooked—down to the clock pendulum which is always off-center. This was not a single-issue crusade by Woodville or a call for gamblers to seek out a self-help group, but a challenge to the nation to confront this Jacksonian economic shift.

“Old '76 and Young '48” (1849)

A soldier, “Young '48,” returns home after being wounded in the Mexican American War. Still full of zeal, he is anxious to tell his extended family about his foreign adventures. Yet something is wrong. This is not some tender, heartwarming scene of a long-awaited-for family reunion. The two veterans in the family should have the strongest of bonds, yet the grandfather, “Old '76,” finds these stories painful. Wearing knee breeches that were fashionable during the American Revolution, the grandfather cannot accept America becoming an imperial power. He is so upset that he can't even look at his own grandson. The walls of the room are filled with reminders of all that is important to this family—a framed copy of Trumbull's 1787 “Signing of The Declaration Of Independence” over the fireplace, a bust of George Washington, and a painting of a revolutionary war hero (presumably the grandfather). The grandson may have started his argument with confidence, but now is reduced to trying to justify himself. The mother and father could assert their authority to restore some domestic tranquility, but appear unwilling or unable to do so. Black servants in the background, a frequent device used by Woodville, serve as witnesses to the hypocrisy and folly of the white dominated society. Woodville painted this scene in 1849 in Düsseldorf and it also related to the 1848 failed German Revolution. His models were all members of his family in their home in Baltimore. It is ironic that this most domestic of scenes deals with such national and international issues.

“War News from Mexico” (1848)

A fraud is being committed before our eyes as one sensational battlefield story after another begins to have an effect on at least some of this audience. The showman is giving us his most dramatic reading in order to entice us, the viewers, to “drink the Kool-Aid” too. Everything tells us that we can let our guard down—there is even an American eagle on the porch roof, a symbol of protection. Maybe if we are lucky we will be allowed into the privileged area under the porch, seemingly reserved for eligible voters (white males). Woodville often uses characters on the fringes to confront us with this divided society as seen by relegating the African-Americans to the foot of the stairs and marginalizing the white woman at the right looking out the window. However, after all the emotional tearjerker accounts and eyewitness testimonials hot off the press, we will probably know less about the war than before. Many people, especially in the North, viewed the war with Mexico as a trick to grab more territory in a southern direction to expand the number of slave states. Woodville is telling us that this will cause an explosive situation as seen by the man on the left who is about to drop a lit match into a metaphorical powder keg. The wise old man seated on the right side of the porch, again from the American Revolution generation, is alarmed at how easily some are distracted from national principles by the excitement of the moment.

Newspapers here are treated quite harshly by Woodville. A technological revolution in type setting, lithograph images, and even the telegraph allowed news to be composed, printed, and distributed quickly and very cheaply. Newspapers had early and late editions and often “Extra” editions. They became part of the social fabric and were often called the “penny press” for their low price. America had one of the highest literacy rates in the world with a government that promoted the publishing industry and facilitated wide distribution of printed matter. Yet Woodville saw, with a few important exceptions, the newspaper's disregard for truth-seeking and a forced diet of sensationalism on the public, as the real cause of the war. Despite the technological advances, news was becoming more of a commodity, controlled by fewer people, and even used to reinforce the stratification of the population. Woodville's advice was not to merely “read between the lines,” but, just like an audience at a production of Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar,” one must rise above the fickle passions of the moment and have a strategic view of statecraft.

“The Card Players” (1846)

To Woodville commercial activity should always take a backseat to productive enterprises in the ideal economy, but here we see plenty of disheveled advertisements on the back wall announcing commerce, but production is a virtual outcast. The clutter on the floor and the crooked picture frame on the door are warning us that something is not right. The cardsharp seated on the right is dressed as a loafer, and in the preliminary sketch for this work he and his partner in crime, the man standing, are given a much more sinister expression, while the older man at the table looked much more naive. Cardsharps of the period often used assistants called ropers, shills, and confidence men to entice victims to come in, play, and bet every penny they had. The cardsharp is clearly cheating as evident by the partially hidden card on his seat. However, the older player may only be pretending to be naive, as he has positioned himself to be able to use the mirror on the far wall to watch everything. Again, Woodville is not addressing someone's personal gambling problem, but the right and responsibility of every person to contribute to man's progress. Instead of building a strong reliable economic future, here, at best, success is left to chance.