Exhibited at the American Art-Union in 1849 and distributed nationwide in an 1851 engraving, War News from Mexico attracted notice because of its lively depiction of the home front at a time of national crisis. It portrays a sampling of the electorate gobbling up the latest news from a daily paper, which dominates the composition and serves as its focal point.
Radiating outward from the newspaper are eleven figures and the bottom half of an eagle, all gathered under or beside the portico of a combined tavern, inn, and post office identified, with heavy-handed significance, as the “American Hotel” (hence the eagle). With wide eyes, gaping mouth, and exaggerated body language, the man at center stage reads aloud from the newspaper clutched in his fists. It reports on the latest happenings in the Mexican War (1846-8), which cost the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides and resulted in the addition to the United States of 500,000 square miles of conquered territory in the West. The supporting players mug and gesticulate their reactions: one figure, in the shadowy background, throws up his hand; another grasps the frame of his eyeglasses; a third raps his knuckles against one of the portico’s pilasters; a fourth, who relays the news to an old gentleman with hearing difficulties, points a thumb emphatically toward the newspaper.
Despite the obviousness of these gestures, it’s not altogether evident whether the news is good or bad for the denizens of the American Hotel. Clearly, though, they’re all personally involved in what they are hearing, and that includes the humble black man and his little girl in rags; the outcome of the war had a direct bearing on how far west Congress would permit slavery to extend. Those opposed to slavery also opposed the war. The black family is situated at the periphery: they are not part of the consensus, and although they have a personal stake in the war, they have no democratic say in it. A white woman, squeezed to the side of the canvas and visible in the window, is similarly characterized as marginal to the sphere of public discourse, which Woodville shows to be populated exclusively by adult white men. Yet she, unlike the two African Americans, occupies a place securely within, rather than outside, the national hotel.
In Woodville’s day, the elderly gentleman in old-fashioned knee breeches would have been understood as a member of the Revolutionary-era generation. His presence in the scene lends legitimacy to the current military conflict, suggesting that the war that started in 1846 embodied the ideals behind the war declared in 1776. But to the extent that the old man wears a grim or confused expression, the painting implies that ’46 is not indisputably the moral successor to ’76, and that the values of the present do not necessarily accord with those of the past.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)