Carl Nebel's The Battle of Cerro Gordo Lithograph

Artist documents Mexican-American War in 12 exquisite lithographs

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by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content

"Mexico has invaded our territory [and] shed American blood on American soil."                          – U.S. President James K. Polk to Congress, May 11, 1846

For two years between 1846 and 1848, Mexico and the United States waged war over Texas and the Mexican lands of western North America. Though Texas had won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and joined the United States in 1845, the Mexican government refused to acknowledge the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries. In 1846, President Polk, weary of the dispute, decided to settle the matter by going to war. The United States won every major battle that followed, including the Battle of Cerro Gordo where U.S. troops skirted the massive blockade of the Cerro Gordo mountain pass near Xalapa, Mexico, to attack Santa Anna's troops from behind. The war ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the border of Texas and signed over all of California, Utah, and Nevada as well as parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado.

War correspondent George Wilkins Kendall (1809–1867) accompanied American troops on many of the battles of the war, sending reports to newspapers who published his accounts. After the war, Kendall decided to publish a book about the conflict, The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated. To illustrate the book, he engaged the talents of German-born artist Carl Nebel (1805–1855), who was living in Mexico at the time. Kendall notes in the preface to the book, "Of the twelve illustrations accompanying this work...the greater number were drawn on the spot by the artist." This is perhaps a bit misleading as it implies that Nebel was at each battle. In reality, Nebel visited the sites of many of the battles after the fact and used notes from Kendall and the army's commanders to paint "on the spot" scenes of 12 major conflicts.

Nebel's paintings were transformed into lithographs in Paris by Rose-Joseph Lemercier, a leading lithographer who specialized in achieving painterly effects through the medium of lithography. Lithography is a printing process that relies on the natural antipathy of water and oil. After sketching a design with a wax or oil-based substance onto a specially prepared stone plate, the lithographer keeps the stone moistened with water, which soaks into the areas not covered with wax. The lithographer then covers the stone in ink, and runs the paper and stone through a press. The paper absorbs the inked design. Nebel's lithographs were then hand-colored by colorists in England, France, Belgium, and Germany. Each lithograph was paired with text about the battle written by Kendall. Given how labor intensive it was to produce the book, it is easy to see why Kendall published only 500 copies.

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Carl Nebel's The Battle of Cerro Gordo Lithograph Artifact from Xalapa, Mexico
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