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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dandy

Richard Caton Woodville lived fast, died young, and left some beautiful paintings

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“Politics in an oyster house”


New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville

At the walters art museum through June 2

The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote “The Painter of Modern Life,” his hugely influential study of the painter and illustrator Constantin Guys, in Paris in 1863, a dozen years after the Baltimorean Richard Caton Woodville left his wife and child in Germany to move to Paris with a female painter. Much of what Baudelaire writes of Guys could also be said of Woodville, with his focus on the domestic, the quotidian, ephemeral fashion, and new technology like telegraphs and newspapers. Like Guys, Woodville “is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity,’”—Baudelaire coins the word here, by the way—“He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil [sic] the eternal from the transitory.”

It is entertaining to think of Baudelaire and Woodville getting together to eat some hash in Paris: They would have found one another kindred spirits, flaneurs, hipsters, dandies—and great artists and observers. But such a meeting is doubtful. Woodville died of a morphine overdose in 1855.

The new exhibition at the Walters provides us with a great deal of context about Woodville’s life and times—from his birth and childhood in Baltimore, to art school in Germany, and ultimately his death in London (about which the museum chooses to say very little). As it happened, Woodville, who came from a prominent family, grew up just blocks from where the Walters is now located, between Franklin and Mulberry streets, and attended St. Mary’s College (which was actually high school) in Seton Hill before matriculating at the University of Maryland Medical College, where he seems to have spent much of his time drawing classmates and professors (he never practiced medicine). When he was 20 years old, he secretly married and had a son.

But this context, while interesting, is in some ways unfortunate because it shows just how scant Woodville’s output really was. Nevertheless, the best of his paintings are truly revolutionary—though, he so greatly influenced modern illustration, especially the style of The Saturday Evening Post and Norman Rockwell, it is hard to imagine a world before such paintings of modern life existed.

“War News from Mexico” (1848), for instance, was widely copied up through the Civil War. In this intensely lively painting, we see a man looking on, mouth agape, at the reports from 19th-century America’s equivalent of Iraq as a crowd surrounds him, listening as he reads the newspaper. There are rich, poor, young, old, black, and white in this vivid depiction of the communality of news before everyone had a cellphone in her pocket—or a yellow City Paper box on every corner.

From the same year, we have “Politics in an Oyster House,” a quintessentially Baltimore painting (at the time the city was known for oysters, not crabs) but one which is also universal. Two men of different generations—the younger, looking like uber-cool war-resister Henry David Thoreau, wags his finger and holds a newspaper—argue politics in a universal conversation whose specific details are the only thing to change: poetry in history, indeed.

“Waiting for the Stage” shows a group of men waiting for the stagecoach, playing cards, drinking, and reading the paper—all three of which were considered especially modern pursuits (this is 40 years before Cézanne’s great paintings of card players). Among the historical material provided by the museum is a fun room filled with 19th-century parlor games of the sort that obsessed Woodville.

Looking at Woodville’s self-portraits, it is almost impossible not to see one of today’s under-30 artists—especially in “Self-Portrait with Flowered Wallpaper,” where he is wearing what appear to be blue jeans and a scruffy-chic jacket, and he sports a long mustache and a chin beard. In some sense, the “genius” of Richard Caton Woodville was to invent—prior to Baudelaire, who usually gets credit for it—the idea of the artist as flaneuer or, in more contemporary terms, hipster. But it is also his attention to detail that makes his stance convincing: the way the light hits the fabric of the man’s sleeve, the woman’s dress, and the child’s hair, taking on a different luster for each, in “The Cavalier’s Return;” or the way the red bulbousness of the older man’s nose in “Politics in an Oyster House” complements the partially knowing and partially bored twinkle in his eye; or the ribs of a dog at his returned master’s side in “Old ’76 and Young ’48” show not only the eye, but also the hand of a master.

“Waiting for the Stage” is one of Woodville’s most forward-looking paintings, not only in its depiction of the extremely modern fashion of the three men but in its use of color. The bright-yellow chair, pinkish bag, and light-dappled wall, all look ahead to the discoveries of the Impressionists and even post-Impressionists like Van Gogh (who wasn’t born until 1853, two years after “Waiting for the Stage” was painted).

As with any artist, not all the work is so impressive, and Woodville’s output was slim enough that the Walters can be justified in assuming that because a work exists it is worthy of inclusion. But we are lucky to have the great works of Woodville’s in Baltimore. The museum does a great job at situating him within his own time but fails to show the revolutionary quality of his life or his works in sufficient detail—which, in the end, is fine. The couple of truly great works speak for themselves.

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