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Walters Art Museum exhibits Baltimore artist Woodville

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Richard Caton Woodville, the most eminent artist to emerge from 19th-century Baltimore, died in London of a morphine overdose in 1855. He was just 30 years old and left behind only a few dozen works, of which 16 paintings are still known to exist, all of which appear in “New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville,” the Walters Art Museum’s comprehensive new survey of his life, his Baltimore origins and his work.

Why he took an overdose of morphine, whether accidentally, intentionally or through habit of dissipation, is unknown. “It is almost as if the record was expunged,” says Joy Peterson Heyrman, who curated this fascinating exhibition. Woodville came from a prosperous and well-connected Baltimore family, and he scandalized them at least thrice: By becoming an artist rather than a doctor or businessman; by marrying against their wishes; and by divorcing and remarrying again, the second time to an artist he met in Dusseldorf, Germany. The odds are good that his opium overdose, and the lack of letters or journals that might give us insight into his state of mind, is related to something dark in his life.

Not a trace of that is readily apparent in the art he left behind. Woodville’s short career began as an amateur in Baltimore, sketching people he knew and painting a portrait of one of Baltimore’s wealthy and sophisticated art collectors and patrons. An early genre scene, of two men smoking in a bar, was crudely done — lumpy hands and almost cartoonlike faces — but suggested enough skill to appeal to a New York collector. The $75 Woodville earned from this small 1845 work, derivative of Dutch painting, persuaded his family to allow him to pursue art as a career.

Dusseldorf, then a vibrant international center for the arts, beckoned. There he fell in with more skilled and sophisticated painters and the evidence from this exhibition suggests he was an absorptive talent, rapidly improved his technique and was developing into a substantial painter by the time of his death, a decade later. The most evocative of Woodville’s paintings are a series of American scenes, produced in Europe but with the American market in mind, the most famous of which is “War News From Mexico,” now in the Crystal Bridges collection in Arkansas.

These American works capture the visual specificity and tumultuous conflict of the early American republic with uncanny concision. Woodville was working within the confines of genre painting, the depiction of ordinary life (often with upper-class condescension for the lower orders) best known from Dutch painters of the 17th century. But he was importing into genre scenes vivid historical details that gave his subjects far greater resonance than the usual themes familiar from his Dutch predecessors: sentimental family gatherings, drunken peasants or mildly racy liaisons in shadowy parlors.

“War News From Mexico” refers explicitly to the U.S. war of territorial aggression that led to American control over Mexican land in Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Utah. On the shabby front porch of the generically named “American Hotel,” a cluster of men from different generations, classes and races, listen as a centrally placed figure reads the latest newspaper dispatch. The ambiguity and variety of their reactions, as well as the prominent placement of an African American man and ragged black child in the right foreground, all point to the raging controversy over the Mexican war and the role it played in adding slave states to the Union, thus exacerbating the brewing tensions over the definition of American freedom and purpose.

Another beloved Woodville work, “Old ’76 and Young ’48” refers to the same cleavage in American political life, through the prism of intergenerational conflict. It shows a wounded young man in military blue dress, gesticulating at a tired and superannuated man, perhaps a veteran of the Revolutionary War (he would be very old). From a doorway to the left, African American servants look into the comfortable, well-appointed parlor. As in “War News,” they are on the margins of society, subject to politics of white men, and to evolving ideas about the promise of the American experiment.

Woodville is never overt about his own politics, though one senses he was relatively progressive in his views. He was a good observer, and faithful observation requires empathy and an open mind, both of which would point to a muted, but keen sense of concern about what America was becoming as slavery festered in the South and corrupted the body politic.

Even more than their historical overtones are the rich trove of sociological observation in Woodville’s American works, making them visual analogues to Dickens’s “American Notes” (gathered during an 1842 tour of America) and Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (researched a decade earlier). Woodville limned a fundamentally contentious society, a culture of strangers forced into intimacy and collective destiny, bored and angry with each other, but unable to escape the endless democratic harangue.

In 1837, another prominent painter of genre scenes, William Sydney Mount, created an image that prefigures many of the basic elements of Woodville’s work: two men conversing around a woodstove in a rough tavern, with a shadowy third figure standing nearby. Like Woodville’s work, this painting, borrowed from the Corcoran, is full of detail, fire tongs, mugs and glasses, wood and wood shavings, and curious quirks of dress and clothing. But it lacks the sense of genuine argument and aggression one finds in Woodville’s 1848 “Politics in an Oyster House,” in which a younger, bearded man, clutching a newspaper, assaults an older man with arguments he seems to be ticking off on the fingers of his right hand. And it lacks the masterful sense of beleaguered weariness and ennui on the face of the poor victim of this oyster-house orator.

We’ve all been stuck next to this man, this blowhard, this know-it-all with bad breath full of passionate intensity. The best of Woodville’s work amplifies the flaws and grandeur of democracy.

But much of it isn’t yet great art, and the work that is technically strong isn’t necessarily the work that has most the visceral, American appeal. Early in his Dusseldorf stay, Woodville painted a more typical genre scene called “The Cavalier’s Return,” which played off popular sentimental interest in 17th-century English history, depicting an English gentleman greeting his family upon return from the civil wars. It is technically polished work, without much interest and oozing an unfortunate nostalgia for a romanticized era.

Very late in his short life, he painted a much more moody and atmospheric portrait of “The Italian Boy With Hurdy-Gurdy,” depicting a poor boy with eyes almost closed in erotic languor, holding a wooden instrument against a dark background. Utterly unlike anything else in Woodville’s oeuvre, this painting suggests that the painter might have completely changed styles, subjects and affinities.

But we don’t know. It is an enigma, like so much else in Woodville’s life and career. Perhaps Woodville had far more in him than he ever managed to set down in paint on canvas. Had he lived, he would have been at the height of his powers during the American Civil War, and might have intersected with the pioneering artists of 19th-century France (he spent time in Paris before moving to London, and worked with a prominent Paris-based print maker to disseminate his works). All speculation.

Woodville’s reputation went into eclipse after his death and stayed low as audiences and collectors grappled with and embraced more modern currents through the end of the 19th and much of the last century. Today, interest and appreciation is returning to figures such as Woodville, in part because of the deep reservoirs of historical information their work contains.

And yet, the genre style feels antiquated and hokey, even today, and Woodville’s practice of it sometimes comes close to caricature. Woodville lavishes effort on getting virtuoso effects just right — light glinting on metal, reflection in glass, the texture of wood or carpets or clothing — while his figures almost always feel as if they have been carefully (and awkwardly) staged in an artificial box.

Woodville knew his audience, sophisticated Americans with a lingering cultural inferiority complex. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a generation older than Woodville, once lamented his preference in painting for the illusionism of “brass pots” and “earthen jugs,” a taste he considered “defective.” Woodville catered exactly to that bourgeois love of material things, accurately rendered, with paintings that put an art sheen on the rough surface of American life. He sold to provincial collectors art that challenged only within the horizons of the familiar.

American painters had to move beyond this kind of work, to develop an independent voice. But now that those battles have been won, now that even the concept of taste as Hawthorne used the term is obsolete, it’s a pleasure to return to the carefully observed world of Woodville’s America. The question is no longer whether this is great painting — it isn’t by international standards of the day — but whether it is interesting. And it is definitely interesting.

New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville

Through June 2 at the Walters Art Museum. 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. www.thewalters.org.

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