Walters explores work of Caton heir who lived fast, died young

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The handsome young man sitting in the pink parlor chair radiates restlessness, a disdain for social conventions and undeniable self-satisfaction.

The impatience in Richard Caton Woodville's "Self-Portrait with Flowered Wallpaper" can be detected in the wide-thrust knees of the artist born to a wealthy and prominent Baltimore family, and in his hastily buttoned and pointedly shabby jacket.

His ego can be gleaned from the care he lavished on painting his face. Woodville imbued his visage with the high, broad forehead and aquiline nose that were thought in that age to signify a lofty mind and an aristocratic, resolute temperament.

Gazing at the portrait, it's no surprise that this supremely confident artist led a scandalous love life. It's little wonder that his rich and powerful relatives (whose kin founded Catonsville) promptly shipped him off to Europe to spare themselves further embarrassment. It's not entirely unexpected that Woodville would die young and under possibly disreputable circumstances.

The real mystery posed by "New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville," an exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, is why so little is known about the painter today — even in his hometown.

"There are no letters and no diaries," says Joy Heyrman, who curated the exhibit."For someone at his strata of society, that is highly unusual. It's almost as if the record has been expunged."

As museum director Gary Vikan studied the scenes of 19th-century Maryland, as he examined the meticulously executed red spittoons and the wooden Baltimore chairs with the paint rubbed off the backrests, he wondered how such a prodigiously gifted painter had come to be eclipsed by other artists — including the son Woodville never met. (Confusingly, the younger artist also is named Richard Caton Woodville. He was born in 1856, five months after his father died, and grew up to become an acclaimed painter of military scenes.)

The elder Woodville also was famous in his day, his comings and goings dutifully chronicled by his hometown newspapers.

He's credited with expanding the role of what's called genre painting from purely domestic scenes to include social and political issues. But when the senior Woodville is mentioned nowadays, it's often as an afterthought. For example, a Wikipedia article about the son refers to the father as "also a talented artist."

Vikan says he initially doubted that Woodville was as inspired a painter as Heyrman claimed. As he put it:

"I thought Joy was blowing smoke the first time she told me, 'This is the Vermeer of America.'

"I thought that was the goofiest thing I'd ever heard. But then I saw the exquisite, jewel-like detail. I love 17th-century Dutch painting, and Woodville is up there with the best of the best of the best."

The Walters exhibit is the largest and most comprehensive show ever mounted on Woodville's work and the first in nearly 46 years. Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art presented a smaller show in 1967.

"New Eyes on America" contains all 16 of Woodville's finished paintings, several of which have never been displayed publicly before. Heyrman even tracked down an 1847 work called "Portrait of Maria Johnston" in a Catonsville attic, where it was being stored by one of the sitter's descendants.

The exhibit includes drawings that Woodville made of his professors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in which an entire personality emerges as if by magic from a few penciled lines. (Woodville quit his medical studies after just one year.)

Museum visitors also will be able to trace the evolution in the artist's thinking. Some paintings are shown alongside preliminary sketches of those scenes. In several, the artist made significant changes to the finished image.

"This is for sure the most authoritative exhibit that Woodville ever has had," says Justin Wolff, as associate professor of art at the University of Maine and the author of a 2002 book about the painter, "Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger."

"What the Walters has been able to do is impressive. Woodville stands out as an enigma, and that's been very daunting to researchers. Joy Heyrman worked tirelessly to fill in the gaps and put together a very robust exhibition on a painter who we previously thought had created just 12 or 13 paintings. They really did uncover new historical information."

Of course, comparisons to Vermeer only go so far, and not just because the artists were separated by 200 years and the Atlantic Ocean.

With a few exceptions, the Dutch master painted middle-class music rooms and chambers in which women were prominently featured. Vermeer's paintings exude a sense of harmony and well-being. Woodville, in contrast, is as ready to delve into hotels, taverns and other public places, and several scenes bristle with tension.

In addition, Woodville often depicted his mostly male subjects grappling with social and political issues — war, inter-generational conflict, and such revolutionary new technologies as the telegraph.

Among Woodville's best-known images is the humorous "Politics In An Oyster House," in which a younger man grasping a newspaper in his left hand harangues an older gentleman, who appears to be listening wearily to the tirade.

"He painted a new America in a new way," Heyrman says. "He had a prophetic understanding of the issues of the moment, and he brought genre painting into modern times."

As visitors stroll through the exhibit, they'll find one portrait that departs from the 19th-century conventions of depicting women with heads bowed, eyes downcast and hands demurely clasped.

Instead, Mary Buckler appears to have one foot thrust in front of the other. Her left hand is cocked on her hip, and her chin is lifted. Woodville's first wife was painted in Dusseldorf by the artist's older colleague, Karl Ferdinand Sohn.

Place that picture next to Woodville's self-portrait, and it's not difficult to imagine that such a pair might have what Heyrman describes as a "fractious" relationship.

Woodville fell passionately in love with Mary Buckley, a doctor's daughter and the sister of a schoolmate. In 1845, when he was 19 and she just 17, the couple eloped.

"I can see why she fell for him," says Sally Craig of Towson, who is distantly related to the Buckleys and who has researched the family with the help of a cousin in Arkansas.

"He was extremely attractive, and he knew what he wanted. The families on both sides were furious. Richard had done a stint in medical school and thought he wanted to be a painter, but he wasn't in any position to support a family."

When the artist's relatives packed the prodigal off to Germany to study at the Dusseldorf Academy, it wasn't immediately clear whether his new wife would be allowed to join him. But the bride's parents relented, and within a few years, Mary Buckley gave birth to a son and a daughter.

According to their son Henry's account, both of his parents were hot-headed, and their marriage lasted just four years. The couple divorced, and Buckley returned to Baltimore in 1849 with her two small children.

At some point, Woodville became involved with one of Sohn's students, the gifted German painter Antoinette Schnitzler. The pair moved to Paris and London, had a daughter in 1853 and may or may not have wed the following year. (No marriage license has been found.)

Mysteriously, the artist's productivity dropped off sharply after he formed his second family. Between about 1844 and 1850, he finished 13 oil paintings; after 1851, he completed just three.

Perhaps he was ill, or perhaps he had succumbed to one of the common vices of that era.

Woodville died in London two weeks before his 30th birthday The cause of death, Heyrman says, was listed as "an accidental overdose of morphine, taken medicinally."

The painter's premature demise strikes Vikan as a great loss, especially since a painting in progress called "Burial at Sea" was reportedly left on Woodville's easel. No one knows what happened to that final work.

"Richard Caton Woodville wasn't even 30 years old when he died," Vikan says. "What could he have done if he had lived as long as Michelangelo?"

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"New Eyes on America: the Genius of Richard Caton Woodville" runs Sunday through June 2 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Admission to the special exhibition costs $6-$10 for adults; children ages 17 and younger admitted free. For details, call 410-547-9000 or go to http://www.thewalters.org.

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