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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:40

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a painting by Richard Woodville. This is War News from Mexico. The man at the center seems to be reading out loud the newspaper that he holds. What was being conveyed was the war between the young republic of the United States and Mexico, an even younger republic. Mexico had only gained its independence from Spain a couple of decades earlier. And what would happen in 1848 is that the United States would successfully invade Mexico City and would state terms for a treaty that would cede approximately half of Mexico to the United States, the states that we now know as California, as Nevada and much of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. - [Mindy] So Texas is maybe what started the whole thing, was a dispute over the border between the United States and Mexico, and it was a very divisive conversation in newspapers. - [Steven] Would those new territories become free states or would they become slave states. Until this point there had been balance between those two kinds of states and there was real concern that this would upset that balance. - [Mindy] And even though Woodville is not necessarily telling us where he falls with this, he's certainly showing that that was one of the central issues of this war by including the African-American figures, because they wanna know what's happening. Will slavery be expanded? Slavery was an issue much earlier than the actual outbreak of the Civil War. - [Steven] The war with Mexico was forcing the issues that would eventually unleash the Civil War. Of course the artist had no idea that the Civil War was coming. But that was only a little more than a decade off. - [Mindy] There are 11 figures, most of them are white males, standing or sitting on the portico of what we know to be the American Hotel. But it's also important to see who is not on the central platform. This is an illustration of a social hierarchy. White men in the center in protected space. Just to the right, a woman leaning out the window, craning her head as if to hear the news. She is relegated to that domestic sphere, the inside. - [Steven] She's impacted by what those men are reading but she doesn't have the vote. She is not a part of the political sphere. An African-American sits on the bottom step. He's lower and so the hierarchy is made very clear. He's also outside but he's no less interested. To me it's such a sympathetic father and child. The child wears rags filled with holes and their poverty is made so clear. The colors of their clothing are red, white and blue, the colors of the American flag. - [Mindy] So even if you divide this as if it's a ladder, they're truly at the very bottom, touching the ground associated with labor rather than elevated onto the steps. But if you look closely there's a shabbiness. Woodville is meticulous in the details. Is this a New England porch? Is this something in the South? Something in the Frontier? And I think Woodville does give us details that might hint to a specific location. But then he makes it so general that it could be my town, it could be your town, it could be almost anyone's town. - [Steven] There is this sense that the artist wanted to convey a familiarity, so that we felt we knew these people. - [Mindy] Woodville is painting for an American audience that is divided. By leaving things very general, like an American Hotel, his audience in the North, his audience in the South, everyone would clamor for this image. And anyone could interpret it really how they wanted to. - [Steven] And in fact, this painting became tremendously popular because a print was made for it. As many as 14000 copies ended up in American homes. - [Mindy] You would have northerners, southerners, abolitionists, those that were for slavery all of them snatching this up. - [Steven] When we look at the painting now in the 21st century, I think we see it as quite old fashioned. But in fact this was a painting that was reflecting modernity. It was reflecting modern technologies. The newspaper was able to speed news across the continent at a rate that had never been possible before, in large part because of the invention of the telegraph. And the very technology that reproduced the painting as a print that could then be distributed was another expression of the modern world, the growth of a middle class that could enjoy art and one that was interested in its world and in its political agency. - [Mindy] You have the newspaper, which is this modern technology, spreading the news but yet one man is selecting what he wants to pronounce. We do have maybe two other men who are reading it over the shoulder but then there's even one more layer of interpretation for the maybe that's a clerk who's then relaying the news to the old man. The old man is a reference back to the Revolutionary War. This is an old veteran. So 1848 is right at the time when Manifest Destiny was so firmly believed that it seemed to entitle the United States to land. - [Steven] The president at this time was a man named Polk and he was a firm believer that the United States should stretch from the east coast all the way to the west coast. - [Mindy] From sea to shining sea, that was truly the ideal of the time period. And it didn't matter that there were indigenous people living there, because it was as if it was our God-given right to take over the land. But that belief overlooked so much that was problematic. - [Steven] And even within the frame of this painting, we see the central figures completely preoccupied by the news and each other, nobody looking to the figures that are at the borders of this painting. - [Mindy] So looking at the sign, American Hotel, it's very intentional, I think, that Woodville has cut the sign so that American, the word, is cut off and the head of the eagle is also severed. This may just be one more hint that something is amiss. These little hints that the artist is giving us to help us read and interpret this image. (piano music)