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The print Mexican News, which copied a painting by Richard Caton Woodville, highlights the importance of slavery to Americans in the 1800s. Exhibited in 1848, this image shows the moment when America’s victory in the recent Mexican-American War was the most important news of the day.
Although America’s victory was to be the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny—the concept that the United States was destined to spread its ideas and laws across all of North America—the real issue that arose after the war was how to handle slavery in newly acquired American states such as Texas. Woodville suggests this by showing two black figures in the lower right-hand corner. A young African American girl stands in rags next to an older field hand (likely her father), both of whom eagerly listen for news of slavery’s destiny. The father’s face appears anxious yet hopeful, and his daughter’s appearance evokes sympathy from the viewer.
These two figures, as well as the bonneted woman above them, stand outside of the shelter of the American Hotel’s porch. This literal exclusion of these individuals from the porch’s shelter is a metaphor for their exclusion from public and political life before the Civil War.
While the output of Richard Caton Woodville was not large, his paintings are well known through prints such as the present example, commissioned by the American Art Union, which was founded in 1839 to promote the growth of fine art through the annual distribution of prints. The Mexican-American War (1846–1848), which resulted from the United States annexing Texas, was an extremely popular cause with Americans. Woodville has captured the excitement of the war news in his painting. The war’s popularity made a natural market for the Art Union’s distribution of its print after Woodville’s painting.
Related examples: Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Varner Hogg State Park, West Columbia, Texas.
Book excerpt: David B. Warren, Michael K. Brown, Elizabeth Ann Coleman, and Emily Ballew Neff. American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998.
Additional Makers: after Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825–1855)
Descriptive Medium: Engraving with watercolor on wove paper