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Mexican News

On view

Mexican News

Artist: James Goodwyn Clonney (English, 1812-1867; active United States, after 1834)

Date: 1847
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 33 x 28 x 2 1/2in. (83.8 x 71.1 x 6.4cm)
Overall: 26 3/4 x 21 7/8in. (67.9 x 55.6cm)
Signed: Lower right: "Clonney 1847"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 66.73
Text Entries

After visiting the United States briefly in 1842, Charles Dickens complained in print that Americans “certainly are not a humourous people, and their temperaments always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character,” as if unduly “oppressed by the prevailing seriousness and melancholy air of business.” As an instant antidote to this and several other flaws he perceived in the national character, Dickens prescribed “a greater encouragement to lightness of heart and gaiety, and a wider cultivation of what is beautiful, without being eminently and directly useful.” In short, the novelist concluded, “it would be well, there can be no doubt, for the American people as a whole, if they loved the Real less, and the Ideal somewhat more.” But even if this remedy did not take immediately, Dickens still hoped to hear in the future “of there being some other national amusement in the United States, besides newspaper politics.”(1)

In light of these John Bullish remarks, it is instructive to learn that James Goodwyn Clonney’s Mexican News was but one of several entertaining genre pictures of the 1840s in which American males—whose crude public manners, political passions, love of trade, and delight in sharp dealing had filled Dickens with aversion—were carefully, even fondly depicted holding, reading, reacting to, or arguing over newspapers. However, unlike what takes place in Richard C. Woodville’s paintings of 1848, War News from Mexico (National Academy of Design) and Politics in an Oyster House (Walters Art Gallery), or in Clonney’s own earlier work in a similar vein, Politicians in a Country Bar of 1844 (New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown), the paper in Mexican News provokes neither sudden surprise and excitement nor a heated partisan debate.(2) Instead, the stark simplicity of the composition as a whole, the comparatively tight, dry handling of the two figures (who seem to be sitting on the sunny porch of a rustic inn), and the remarkable absence of melodrama or even narrative detail, except for the headline (which is readable upside down), make it clear that the artist was intent on achieving a good-natured, yet unsentimental realism, free of distracting traces of the Ideal.(3)

The faces, gestures, and costumes of the two protagonists in Mexican News also prove the point that, even though their creator had been born in Great Britain in the same year as Charles Dickens (who claimed that all Americans seemed alike: “There is scarcely a man who is in anything different from his neighbor“), Clonney contemplated the denizens of the New World from a much closer perspective. As a resident of the New York City area since the early 1830s, working first as a miniaturist and later as a genre painter in the mold of William S. Mount, and then as a naturalized citizen after 1840, Clonney must have developed an insider’s eye for distinctive American types. In Mexican News, for example, the older, toothless man about to drink from his mocha-ware mug must have been a favorite model because of his somewhat comic features. Wearing similar clothing while sitting on a rock, rather than a Queen Anne chair, he reappears in another Clonney painting of 1847, The Happy Moment (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), where he shows off a fine catch at the end of his fishing line.(5)

The younger man holding the newspaper in Mexican News also has the air of an identifiable rural type. His forage cap, his dark jacket worn without a vest, and his buff-colored pants mark him as being more modish and probably more affluent than the older man, though far from a city slicker. The Staffordshire pitcher and small empty glass beside him on the end of a convenient bench suggest that he, too, has had something to drink, but then again he may have been serving his companion from that pitcher more often than himself. Still more importantly, the backward tilt of his Hitchcock chair, a graceless social habit ridiculed in Frances Trollope’s scathing report on the Domestic  Manners of the Americans in 1832, virtually brands him as the unsophisticated—Mrs. Trollope would have said uncouth—product of a new democracy and obviously proud of it.(6)

It must be national pride that shows in both smiling faces in Mexican News. Reports from the war zone described one American success after another in 1847— from General Zachary Taylor’s victory at Buena Vista in February to the capture of Mexico City in September. Yet there is a key difference between Clonney’s characters. In the deferential turn of the younger man’s head, clearly visible in the earliest preparatory drawings, the artist created a tension that holds the viewer’s interest.(7) The young man appears to be waiting expectantly for the next words, the next humorous aphorism, the next example of Yankee wit, the next bit of crackerbox philosophy to come from the mouth of the older fellow who seems perfectly cast in the popular role of the comic countryman, the American cousin, the Brother Jonathan able to embody the homespun humor and defiant spirit of an entire nation.(8)

 Notes

1. Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842), vol. 2, p. 297. Also see Michael Slater, ed., Dickens on America and the Americans (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1979), p. 19.

2. For more on these particular pictures, see Patricia Hills, The Painters America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810-1910 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.), pp. 12, 21, and 52-53, figs. 18 and 63-65. Also see Barbara Groseclose, “Politics and American Genre Painting ofthe Nineteenth Century,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 120, no. 5 (November 1981), pp. 1210—17.

3. In his book, Mirror to the American Past; A Survey of American Genre Painting, 1750-1900 (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 96, Herman Warner Williams, Jr., observed that “while he was capable of an unsentimental realism, more often than not Clonney strained for a chuckle.”

4. Dickens, American Notes, vol. 2, p. 77.

5. The Happy Moment and Mexican News are reproduced side by side in Lucretia H. Giese, “James Goodwin Clonney (1812-1867): American Genre Painter,” American Art Journal, vol. 11, no. 4 (Autumn 1979), pp. 22-23, figs. 21 and 22. What may be the same model from the neighborhood of New Rochelle, N.Y., where Clonney was living at this time, appears on a much smaller scale in a boat in the foreground of Clonney’s Fishing Party on Long Island Sound Off New Rochelle, also painted in 1847. See Barbara Novak, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Nineteenth-century American Painting (New York: Vendome Press, 1986), p. 107.

6. The lithographs entitled Ancient and Modern Republics, Miss Clarissa and Mr. Smith and Ex Pede Herculem, executed by Auguste Jean Jacques Hervieu as illustrations for Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners, show related examples of how poorly American men sat on chairs.

7. The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art owns a sheet of paper (9 5/16 to X 1 17/8 in., accession no. 68.4) with sketches for Mexican News on both sides. The more complete compositional study is reproduced by David Sellin, American Art in the Making, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976, p. 35, fig. 45, cat. no. 29).

8. When it came to the issue of finding at least some degree of humor in American character types, even Charles Dickens had to admit that “in shrewdness of remark, and a certain cast-iron quaintness, the Yankees, or people of New England, unquestionably take the lead” (American Notes, vol. 2, p. 297). For a more complete discussion of such types in both art and literature, see Joshua C. Taylor’s delightful survey, America as Art (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976), in which an entire chapter (pp. 37-94) is devoted to the concept of “The American Cousin.”

 

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