[TEXAS]. NEBEL, Carlos. Battle of Palo-Alto [lower left below image] C. Nebel fecit [lower right below image] Bayot lith. [lower left in image] Entered According to Act of Congress. [Paris: Lemercier, 1851]. Toned lithograph, original hand-coloring, hand-finished with gesso highlights. Image: 27.7 x 42.3 cm; image with title: 31 x 42.3 cm; overall sheet size: 35.5 x 46.5 cm. In hinged mat with modern mounting tape. Slight overall darkening with a few light stains in image area, light streak down center of image, small ink stain in lower margin barely touching image area, margins darkened (as usual), overall a good copy with rich, vibrant color and bright gesso. The prints from this series are exceedingly difficult to acquire in acceptable condition because of heavy dark foxing due the mixed-media technique used to create the prints. Unfortunately, in the zeal to remove discoloration from the prints, they are frequently found over-restored, with bleached color and the subtle gesso highlights removed.
First edition of one of the top nineteenth-century lithographs of Texas. This lithograph appeared in George Wilkins Kendall and Carlos Nebel’s The War Between the United States and Mexico Illustrated (New York & Philadelphia: Appleton, 1851), in which it was the first illustration. Bennett, American Nineteenth-Century Color Plate Books, p. 65: “The very best American battle scenes in existence.” Christensen, The U.S.-Mexican War, p. 181. Garrett & Goodwin, Mexican-American War, p. 31. Haferkorn, p. 47. Howes K76. Kurutz & Mathes, The Forgotten War, p. 148. Palau 188868. Peters, America on Stone, p. 295. Raines, p. 132. Sabin 37362. Sandweiss, Stewart & Huseman, Eyewitness to War: Prints and Daguerroeotypes of the Mexican War, 1846-1848, No. 5 (p. 109), Plate 2 (p. 76). Tyler, The Mexican War, A Lithographic Record, p. 11: “Magnificently produced portfolio by the first modern war correspondent;” p. 18: “Of all the Mexican War lithographs, perhaps the dozen by Kendall and Nebel are the most popular, as well as the most accurate.” Tyler, Prints of the West, p. 78.
The Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846), fought on Texas soil north of Brownsville, was the first major engagement of the Mexican-American War and the first U.S. victory (Handbook of Texas Online: Palo Alto, Battle of). The view, which shows the action from the perspective of a viewer behind the U.S. lines looking south towards the Mexican positions, has been praised for its artistic beauty and historical verisimilitude. As Sandweiss et al. point out:
The details of the uniforms are generally correct, as Kendall and the artist intended. The troops wear blue fatigues with forage caps or straw panama hats, which a few men adopted for hot climates. Enlisted men and lower-grade officers wear shell jackets, while others wear the long frock coats prescribed for officers. While he kept close to his historical sources, Nebel also exercised a certain amount of artistic judgment. He broke up what could have been a very long, flat, and uninterestingly horizontal scene by introducing foreground details such as the oxen, the dead and wounded, and the mounted officers (p. 110).
Christianson remarks that although Nebel’s drawings are believed to be the most accurate depictions of U.S. combat, “they glamorize U.S. combatants and often fail entirely to depict Mexicans. They also contain numerous errors in the representation of Mexican topography.” This scene contains a notable error in the background, which shows a line of hills that are not there. The Mexican forces are certainly a faceless mass of brushstrokes. In a preliminary version of a forthcoming work on nineteenth-century lithographs of Texas, Ron Tyler brilliantly comments: “Nebel adopted a practice in the Palo Alto print, that also turns up in later ones, of picturing the road as it continues behind the Mexican lines through a pass in the fictitious hills, suggesting that another segment in the road to Mexico City–this one the route to Fort Texas and Matamoros–will be open as soon as the American troops have cleared the way.”
Carlos (or Carl) Nebel (1805-1855), of German or Swiss origin, was trained in Germany, Italy, and France in engineering, architecture, and drawing. He resided in Mexico from 1829 to 1834 and created one of the most renowned illustrated works on that country (Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la partie la plus intéressante du Méxique, Paris, 1836, with an introduction by the savant Humboldt). Nebel’s art was elevated by his incorporation of the newest technical innovations in France. The present plate and the next in this catalogue were drawn on stone by Adolphe Bayot and printed by Joseph Lemercier, among the best lithographic teams in Paris at the time. Tyler comments: “Lemercier was known for the new processes and technical innovations he had developed, including a method of spreading powdered lithographic crayon on a warm stone, then working it with a brush or a dabber, to obtain delicate shadings for skies and water. Lithographers also struggled with how to make a graduated tint, and by the early 1840s Lemercier was experimenting with what he called his lavis lithographique, or graded washes on stone. The result was similar to that achieved by aquatint, which by the time Kendall and Nebel began work on this portfolio was a vanishing art because lithography offered a simpler and aesthetically competitive alternative. Under the watchful eyes of both Nebel and Kendall, who approved each stone, lithographic artist Adolphe-Jean-Baptiste Bayot put all twelve of Nebel’s pictures on stone. Kendall later claimed that more than sixty workers were involved in the process of printing and coloring the lithographs and that the process was so demanding that only 120 copies could be finished each month.”