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Richard Caton Woodville:
American Painter, Artful Dodger
Justin Wolff

Hardcover | 2003 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691070834


This book is the first to examine the life and work of Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855), an antebellum genre painter and shrewd observer of urban society and politics. Before Woodville died at thirty, he produced a small body of work that includes such iconic pieces as Politics in an Oyster House (1848) and War News from Mexico (1848). In lively prose complemented by vivid illustrations, Justin Wolff presents all the available information on the elusive Woodville and perceptively analyzes practically every work of art he produced. In doing so, Wolff shows that Woodville's paintings engaged their moment in history in surprisingly complex ways.

The scion of a distinguished Baltimore family, Woodville dropped out of medical school against his father's wishes and moved to Germany to study painting at the famed Düsseldorf Academy. Before his early death, from an overdose of morphine, Woodville traveled to France and England, returning to the United States only twice. However, most paintings by this expatriate focus on American social and political life and were exhibited at the American Art-Union, a New York organization that patronized and popularized the fine arts.

Wolff investigates Woodville's career in the context of the fragile alliances between nationalism, capitalism, and the cultural marketplace in the 1840s and 1850s. Like a few other unconventional painters and authors of the period (Herman Melville in particular), Woodville treated common subjects--slavery, the Mexican War, the penny press, drinking, gambling, and confidence games--with his own distinctive biases and mannered stylizations.

Wolff argues persuasively that the dubbing of antebellum genre painting as simply "scenes of everyday life" misrepresents its convoluted and sometimes subversive meanings. Woodville was in fact a modern painter--a painter of his complicated times. With this definitive work, one of America's most intriguing artists is no longer one of the least understood.


"Woodville is a tempting subject, for although he produced few paintings during his brief expatriate career in Dusseldorf, Paris, and London, each work is replete with implied social context, anecdotal detail, and unresolved conflict. Wolff takes full advantage of these riches, navigating his readers through the shadowy alleys of antebellum Baltimore and New York City and engaging them with well-researched tales of gambling, popular journalism, and partisan politics along the way."--Choice

"The result is one maverick's fearlessly uncompromising view of his own country's unfolding history, and an oddly enhanced understanding of the artistic context of the future. Don't pass this by."--Julian Freeman, The Art Book


"This is a thorough and well-constructed book that takes a promising approach: genre painting (Woodville's in particular) did not simply depict everyday life; it constructed layered, detailed stories of the ordinary that were in many ways like novels."--Paul E. Johnson, University of South Carolina

File created: 3/10/2015

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