New York

Richard Caton Woodville

Brooklyn Museum

The latest in the excellent series of shows of American painters that have been organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington is devoted to the early 19th century painter Richard Caton Woodville (1825–1855); it closes its tour at the Brooklyn Museum. Since Woodville died while still quite young, he has left only a small number of pictures, and those for which he is known are all pure genre scenes: Politics in an Oyster House, Waiting for the Stage, The Card Players and War News From Mexico are his most important things. Actually, these paintings are in themselves enough to assure Woodville of a prominent place among American genre painters. Of Woodville’s contemporaries, only Bingham composed works with a greater firmness of structure, and Woodville’s design, like Bingham’s, has Old Masterish overtones (Raphael and the tradition of Raphael in the 17th century) that are none the less insistent for being discreet. His paint is often oily and his textures sensuous, but the sensation they afford is simulated and addressed only to the eye, not the touch, and Woodville’s color is never heavy, either. And while there is an abundance of detail, anecdotal, picturesque and sentimental in its appeal, it is always subordinated to the requirements of the design: these are small pictures, and only the basic simplicity and strength of the design keeps them from seeming fussy and cluttered.

But if one compares Woodville’s genre with Bingham’s, or even more with Mount’s, there is something about it that is not quite wholly resolved: the facial expressions of his people are often too dramatic, their gestures too theatrical for such an unpretentious kind of subject. I think that what Woodville was doing, in this respect, was borrowing expressions and gestures from the tradition of history painting in the form in which its props had been codified in the late 17th century, when certain poses and expressions were assigned to the emotions they were meant to depict, and in this way trying to raise the dignity of his subjects; or, to put it differently, he was representing them in the terms of the only esthetic values he knew. This is the context in which to consider certain pieces in the show that seem very different from the homespun, American genre Woodville is generally known for. Typical of them is The Cavalier’s Return, in which a Tudor gentleman, just home from the wars, is greeted by his infant son. The subject is anecdotal and sentimental, and the pictorial echoes are of De Hooch and Ter Borch—certainly the work would seem to be pure genre. But the décor in this painting, and in a number of other works, is that kind of late Gothic that had, in the closing decades of the 18th century, come to be considered the appropriate setting for great actions and used as a backdrop in history paintings by Copley in his English period as much as by Delacroix, who failed to find in their own age an ambience of the proper sublimity.

Thus, there is in all Woodville’s work an aspiration after high culture that the seemingly humble subjects seem to belie; and in his spending the last ten years of his life—his entire maturity—abroad we can find a confirmation of the fact that his aims were more elevated than what American life could encourage. Yet as an expatriate he did some paintings that seem to us pure cracker barrel, quite as much so as Bingham or Mount. This conflict is of course not peculiar to Woodville; it characterizes both dominant kinds of American painting toward the middle of the last century, landscape as well as genre. I myself have tried to study it in Cole, and Maurice Bloch has recently traced its workings in Bing ham. The value of the present show is in revealing it more clearly than is usual, behind works that singly seem perhaps more harmonious than when they are taken together, as elements in a total output that had so far been partly unknown.

Jerrold Lanes