For the past 158 years, art historians thought that the painter Richard Caton Woodville, the James Dean of his generation, had completed just 19 paintings before he died of a morphine overdose in 1855 at age 30.
Now, we know that there were 20.
Joy Heyrman, deputy director of development for the Walters Art Museum, recently learned about what very well may be first oil painting that the artist ever created. It’s an 1844 portrait of a childhood friend, the surgeon and investigator Stedman R. Tilghman. She arranged to borrow the painting from a private collector, and it will be on display at the Walters through June 2 in “New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville,” the most comprehensive exhibit of the Baltimore-born artist ever done.
As Heyrman tells the story, the collector, a direct descendant of Tilghman, moved to New York several years ago but remained on the Walters’ email list. When he heard about the Woodville exhibition he phoned the museum and offered to loan them his signed portrait of Tilghman. Once the portrait was authenticated, the museum put it on display.
“It’s a really lovely little addition to the exhibition,” Heyrman says. “It was done very early in Woodville’s career, before he had formal art instruction in Germany. He does something that’s very characteristic, focused on the face, specific and well rendered. still working out problems of the figure.”
During his brief life, Woodville scandalized both his prominent family and Baltimore society, first by eloping with a classmate’s sister and divorcing her after just years, and then by fathering two children with another woman whom he may or may not have married. When the artist died in London two weeks
before his 30th birthday, the cause of death, Heyrman says, was "an accidental overdose of morphine, taken medicinally."
His friend, Tilghman, lead a life that was nearly as colorful. After graduating from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1843, he joined Sir William Drummond Stewart’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains as a surgeon, according to wall text from the exhibition. He died of dysentery in New Orleans
in 1848 after serving as a doctor for the Regiment of Maryland Volunteers in the Mexican-American War.