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Caton connection delivers at Walters

A neglected 19th-century Baltimore artist gets some 21st-century recognition in an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum. "New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville" includes all 16 of his surviving paintings, some of his drawings and watercolors, and enough artwork by contemporaries to illuminate the career of an artist who did not leave any diaries or letters behind.

Woodville (1825-1855) came from a well-established Baltimore family. Indeed, one of his ancestors belonged to the Caton family that gave Catonsville its name; and early Baltimore collectors of the artist's work included Thomas Edmondson, whose name lives on in Edmondson Avenue and Edmondson Village. Woodville's oil painting "Dr. Thomas Edmondson" (ca. 1844) presents us with a face to go along with that familiar name.

The artist's own face also gets presented in several self-portraits, including a graphite drawing from 1844 showing a well-dressed artist with a confident personality that verged on seeming arrogant.

This exhibit provides information about where Woodville lived and studied during his Baltimore youth, but much of his brief life was spent in Europe. He studied at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany from 1845 to 1851, and later lived in Paris and London.

Although his biography now has its share of gaps, it is known that he divorced his first wife, with whom he had two children; and that he took up with a female artist, though no proof exists that they ever married. What is also known is that his artistic output slowed in his final years and that he died of a morphine overdose at age 30 in London.

It's tempting to speculate that Woodville's live-fast-and-die-young existence would have made this Baltimorean a candidate for a 19th-century version of "The Wire," but the exhibit demonstrates that the more relevant wire here is that of the telegraph. Invented in 1844 and first transmitted between Washington and Baltimore, the telegraph helped spread the news more quickly and facilitated the growth of daily newspapers.

In various ways, Woodville's paintings involve the news of the day. It's all the more striking when you consider that many of these American-themed paintings were done while the artist lived in Germany.

Woodville liked to offer visual clues that made his genre scenes more specific. In "The Card Players" (1846), for instance, the players inside a tavern are next to a poster advertising the Front Street Theater, a Baltimore theater of that era. It's noteworthy that this card game between white players is being watched by a black man, because Woodville admirably portrayed black characters in nonstereotypical ways.

His most significant paintings take place in taverns, private houses and other places where people of assorted demographic backgrounds gather; and they're often interested in the latest news.

In "Politics in an Oyster House" (1848), two men sit at a tavern table. The younger of the two men holds a newspaper in one hand and gestures with the other hand as if avidly commenting on something in the paper; the older man seated across from him seems worn down by this torrent of words and actually turns toward the viewer as if appealing for our sympathy.

Everybody is excited by breaking news in Woodville's most famous painting, "War News from Mexico" (1848), in which a group reacts to battle news from the Mexican-American War that one man is reading aloud from a newspaper. This group is gathered on the front porch of what an overhead sign identifies as the American Hotel, and a smaller sign indicating a post office presumably explains that the paper has just been delivered.

It seems symbolic that there are eight white men gathered in this group. There's also a white woman, but she's barely in the picture owing to her placement inside an adjacent window. She leans out of that open window, eagerly listening. A black man seated on the hotel steps and a black youth standing next to him also listen to the news. Although not much is known about Woodville's politics, he is sensitive to marginalized people.

Other major paintings, including "Old '76 and Young '48" (1849) and "The Sailor's Wedding" (1852), have black servants hovering in doorways at the edge of domestic scenes. Living in Europe, Woodville still knew a lot about the America he depicted.

"New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville" remains through June 2 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Museum admission is free, but admission to this special exhibit is $6-$10 for adults; children, 17 and under, are free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to http://www.thewalters.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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