Artist Carl Nebel Documents Mexico at Peace and War
By Gary F. Kurutz
Gary Kurutz is the editor of the Bulletin, former executive director of the Foundation, and retired curator of special collections for the California State Library. He extends his gratitude to M. Patricia Morris, the Bulletin’s wonderful copy editor for her translation of Nebel’s French language captions and to Foundation staff member Brittneydawn Cook for her photographs of Carl Nebel’s prints that illustrate this article.
In all my years of affiliation with the historical collections of the California State Library, I have been continually impressed by the Library’s extensive holdings of general or non-California rare books. How is it that a government library in the new state of California would acquire such treasures? Some considered California at one time to be on the extremity of civilization. Perhaps state government saw the need to acquire by gift and purchase not only law books and government reports but also volumes noted for their superb illustrations or plates to demonstrate the Golden State’s intellectual sophistication. In so doing, this new government obtained in the nineteenth century such hallmarks as John James Audubon’s four-volume elephant folio The Birds of America (1827–1838), Robert Thornton’s The Temple of Flora (1799–1805), Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754), and one of the finest copies extant of the Nuremberg Chronicle, dating from 1493, to name just a few. Adding to their luster, all these folios were exquisitely hand-colored. All-in-all, this venerable government library preserves and makes available one of America’s finest collections of illustrated books.
In planning the next issue of the Bulletin, Executive Director Brittneydawn Cook suggested writing about two large folio titles created by the German-born artist Carl Nebel (1805–1855) that highlight Mexico in the 1830s and the U.S. war with Mexico in 1846–48. I immediately volunteered as I have always been attracted to Nebel’s works because of their stunning beauty, subject matter, and the complex history behind their publication. Plus, I enjoy calling the attention of our loyal Foundation readership to such surprising treasures and paying homage to the state librarians of more than a century ago who had the wisdom to add these great bibliographic works to the permanent collection.
Educated in Germany as an architect, engineer, and artist, Carl Nebel, like many other Europeans, became intrigued by Mexico, especially after it had gained its independence from Spain (1). Under Spain, travel in the region was virtually banned. Nebel traveled to the new republic in 1829 “to paint scenes of a country he knew from the writings of [Alexander von] Humboldt, Antonio León y Gama, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Hernán Cortés. He remained in Mexico until 1834, visiting and painting the cities of Puebla, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara, Veracruz, Jalapa, Mexico, and San Luis Potosí”(2). During his explorations, he became captivated by the region’s pre-Cortesian history and visually documented the ruins of the Aztec empire and other native peoples who once lived in this vast territory. In addition, he developed a fascination and respect for modern Mexico and spent time traveling about picturing its varied landscape and people. Moreover, during his peregrinations, Nebel became personally acquainted with the great scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who mentored and encouraged him.
Dazzled by what he saw, this multi-talented German planned to produce a book based on his observations and drawings, and Humboldt agreed to write a prologue which gave this ambitious work added credibility. In 1834, he journeyed to Paris to have it published. Two years later in 1836 the Parisian firm of M. Moench and M. Gau issued Nebel’s masterpiece as Voyage Pittoresque et Archéologique Dans la Partie la Plus Intéressante du Mexique (“A Picturesque and Archaeological Voyage in the Most Interesting Part of Mexico”). On the title page, Nebel interestingly listed himself only as an architect and not as an artist or engineer. Nebel, in his introduction, offered the following eloquent explanation of the inspiration that led him to create this monumental volume:
The New World, so rich in objects of curiosity and interest in Europe has frequently been visited by celebrated travelers who have provided us with valuable information in terms of statistics, natural history and so forth, but whether it is out of disdain or for some other reason, these gentlemen have neglected the picturesque aspect of this country, which I feel to be no less interesting than the scientific aspect. Not everyone is a geographer, a botanist, a mineralogist, or what have you, but everyone is curious (3).
Wanting to reach a general audience, he stressed both the historical and the picturesque, and in this regard, succeeded.
Voyage Pittoresque is illustrated with fifty plates based on his drawings. Production of such a publication was a complex undertaking requiring the work of many skilled hands. As explained by historian Pablo Diener: “The printing was farmed out to several different Parisian houses, relying most heavily on three of them, Lemercier, Bernard & Frey and Mailhe and that a total of twelve engravers participated in elaborating the plates”(4). By the time Nebel’s book came to be, lithography had become the standard medium for book illustration. Moreover, lithography proved more economical and quicker than the aquatint etchings created for works like Audubon’s Birds of America (5). A team of these artisans copied Nebel’s watercolors by drawing them in reverse on a lithograph stone with a crayon. After careful inking and pushing the stone through a press, a black and white printed sheet was produced. At the time, printing in color had not been fully developed which, therefore, required each plate to be painstakingly and laboriously colored by hand. Thus, if a hundred copies were printed with ten different colored plates, the publishing house had to produce 1,000 hand-colored plates. Each plate required hours of work, and no two were exactly alike. Despite this arduous and time-consuming effort, the result was nothing short of spectacular. By studying the Library’s copy, one sees in tiny print below each image Nebel’s name as the delineator. The lithographed images range in size from 73/4 x 13 inches to 12 x 16 3/4 inches.
The Library’s copy fully demonstrates the painstaking work and individuality of their production. Of the fifty plates, eighteen are hand-tinted; the other thirty-two are rich in tone but not colored. However, other copies referred to in reference books and articles concerning Voyage Pittoresque state that twenty of the plates were issued in color. According to Humboldt, Nebel’s work was published by subscription in ten different installments of five plates each (6). Such a method was not uncommon at the time. Most of the great illustrated books like Audubon’s Birds of America, for instance, came in eighty-seven parts and were then later bound together later into four elephant folio-size volumes.
What is so striking about the Library’s folio is the hand-colored lithographs of the people of Mexico ranging from peasants to landed gentry. In my mind, these are some of the most beautiful and overlooked images ever created of a North American indigenous population. Captivated by these full color prints, I felt as though I was in a museum in Mexico viewing original art. Found in his masterpiece are images of Native Americans, mestizos, and people working at such mundane occupations as vaqueros, coal miners, mule skinners, fruit vendors, and tortilla makers. Despite this, the attention to detail especially concerning their dress or costumes gives them a regal appearance. “La Mantilla,” for example, depicts two comely women in black mourning dress adorned with black lace or silk mantillas talking to a grandee of high society. The print titled “Rancheros” shows a regal looking vaquero donning a beaver hat and wearing a rich blue cloak with gold and silver decorated embroidery astride a beautiful horse. With its painterly coloring, the plate gives the viewer the feeling that this vaquero is overseeing one of the noted Californio (7) ranchos belonging to the Vallejo or de la Guerra families. Even the view of the tortilla maker grinding flour on her knees comes across as a special moment in everyday life. So impressive are these prints that they have, on occasion, been reproduced to illustrate California’s rancho era. To further demonstrate their appeal, a restaurant in Old Town San Diego is decorated with reproductions of Nebel prints from this very volume.
The following is a translation of Nebel’s description of the “Ranchero” and the ladies who accompanied him. It well illustrates his attention to detail:
The beaver hat is decorated with large gold braid; the top of the coat is velvet and gold; below the coat he wears a short jacket embroidered with gold or silver like the pants held by a red belt with gold braid at the end. The botas, or leather, which envelop the legs are embroidered in silk and gold on a silver background. The ladies ride on horseback with great confidence; they usually wear a very light beaver hat, shaded by beautiful black feathers; . . . and the little Turkish-style jacket, embroidered with silver, encloses the whole bust and raises the beauty of the throat, half covered by a light shawl, falling on the shoulders in the shape of a scarf.
Voyage Pittoresque received much acclaim by the well-to-do of Europe and Mexico. Because of the positive response, a Spanish language edition was published in Paris and Mexico in 1839 as Un Viaje Pintoresco y Arqueologico por Mexico. In this new edition, all the plates were hand colored. Because of its continued popularity, a new edition was issued in Mexico in 1844. All editions remain scarce and are prized by institutions and astute collectors.
The second title in the Library’s collection illustrated by Carl Nebel is The War between the United States and Mexico (New York, 1851 (8). George Wilkens Kendall, the founding editor of the New Orleans Picayune and America’s first war correspondent, wrote the text. Kendall covered the American invasion from the crossing of the Rio Grande into northern Mexico in 1846. He then joined General Winfield Scott’s army as it invaded central Mexico at Vera Cruz on the coast of the Caribbean following the conflict until the decisive assault on Chapultepec Castle on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1847. His dispatches were sent home for publication in the Picayune. The Mexican-American War was the country’s first foreign war, and it did much to instill a fierce sense of nationalism (9).
Kendall, the author of the popular Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition (1844)(10) that documented an earlier conflict with Mexico, wanted to produce a monumental work about the invasion that combined his text with folio-size plates of each of the twelve major battles. Earlier, while in a Mexican prison as a result of the ill-fated Texan-Santa Fe Expedition, he somehow met Nebel after his release and was impressed by his immense skill as exhibited in the plates for the 1836 atlas folio. Kendall outlined his publishing plan to the artist, and they entered into a partnership. While Kendall developed the text, Nebel began creating the drawings even though the war was over and he had not witnessed any of the battles. In addition, Kendall took on the stressful task of orchestrating the production of the work including finding a firm capable of reproducing Nebel’s watercolors in an acceptable manner and locating a publisher to distribute the masterpiece. The journalist first approached Harper and Brothers, the publisher of his first book, but an agreement could not be reached. Eventually, he obtained a satisfactory contract with D. Appleton & Company of New York and Philadelphia (11). Kendall also had the advantage of having the press of the Picayune at his disposal to print his account of the war.
The background behind its publication provides another superb example of how complex it was to produce a book of its size with hand-colored plates in the mid-nineteenth century. Kendall, in his preface which he curiously wrote in the third person, was highly defensive. He confessed that “many errors may have crept into his [narrative] descriptions, but he can assert that every departure from the truth has been unintentional.” The journalist admitted that he did not see every moment of action and relied on official reports of the officers and their subordinates. Furthermore, he acknowledged that he had a limited knowledge of military science. Nonetheless, he was at several of the battle sites and strove to present his readers with an account of the conflict as accurately as possible.
Kendall knew of course that the key to this publication were the twelve large prints. Again, the preface opened with a surprising statement: “Of the twelve illustrations accompanying this work, which include all the principal battles fought between the United States and Mexico, during the war between the two countries, the great number were drawn on the spot by the artist.” No doubt this gave this expensive publication more believability. However, as stated above, Nebel never saw the actual fighting. Instead, the artist had to rely on Kendall’s verbal descriptions and the partners had to decide on how to portray a decisive moment of a battle. But as a resident of Mexico for a number of years, Nebel had a fair knowledge of the country’s topography and vegetation and the cities and fortifications portrayed. In addition, he no doubt observed the uniforms, weapons, wagons, and horses used by the adversaries during his travels. He also had access to black and white line illustrations that appeared in contemporary books and periodicals. However, using artistic license, he sometimes changed the landscape by adding hills and depicting oxen and wounded and dead soldiers to create a more dramatic effect (12). Kendall in his preface explained his intentions with the creation of the masterful plates:
As regards the style of lithography, the coloring, the spirit thrown into the figures, and the general effect produced, the illustrations much speak for themselves. Every attention has certainly been paid to costume. The soldiers of the United States have been painted in the ordinary fatigue caps and dresses — such as they always wore during the war. More effect might have been reproduced by arraying them to their full uniform, but this would have been deviating from the truth and was avoided.
In conclusion, it may be stated that the object of both artist and author, in securing the services of the best lithographers, colorists and printers, has been to produce a work which so far at least as appearance may be taken into account, will be credible to the United States.… They have certainly bestowed much time and money on the undertaking and can boldly assert that no country can claim that its battles have been illustrated in a richer, more faithfully or more costly style of lithograph.
To accurately reproduce the watercolors for publication, the partners chose the prestigious Paris lithograph firm of Rose-Joseph Lemercier. Not coincidently, Lemercier had reproduced several of the artist’s drawings for his 1836 work, Voyage Pittoresque. While lithography triumphed over other contemporary forms of illustration in accuracy and cost, it nonetheless represented a complex and expensive undertaking. Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot, one of Lemercier’s best artisans, copied all twelve of Nebel’s watercolors onto lithograph stones and deserved much credit for their truthfulness and beauty. Kendall, as narrated in historian Ron Tyler’s superb essay on the publication, engaged more than sixty workers to print the six thousand lithographs needed for an edition of 500 copies, illustrated with twelve lithograph plates(13). Each image measured 10 3/4 x 16 1/2 inches and was imprinted on a 19 x 23 1/2 inch sheet. At one point, Kendall’s patience was tested as Nebel delayed and delayed the work by rejecting the reproduction of his art on the lithograph stones. Finally, Nebel informed Kendall that he was satisfied and returned home to Germany (14).
The next major step was the hand coloring of six thousand black and white lithographs. Kendall, as documented by Tyler, secured the services of hand colorists in England, France, Belgium, and Germany to speed along its publication. So intense was the creation of this large folio that it took three years to finish. Following a common method of sales during this era of lavish color plate books, the prints were distributed in three formats: singly, as a set suitable for framing; in an elegant portfolio with text; and bound as a folio-sized book, in which the text was interspersed with plates. In another account, the work was issued in three then costly formats: “in paper covers, $34; in elegant portfolios, $38; half-bound, $40”(15). If adjusted for inflation, the half-bound volume would cost approximately $1,400 in 2020. The term half-bound meant that the book came with a leather or morocco spine and marbled or cloth covered boards for the front and rear covers. As is often the case with such plate books, many bound copies over the years were tragically broken up for framing purposes. Consequently, complete copies are scarce.
Kendall’s large folio won the adulation of the press both for his prose and the striking hand-colored plates based on Nebel’s drawings. The Paris correspondent of the New York Herald upon seeing an early copy praised it as “one of the most superb works of art ever achieved in Paris.” Others commended the folio for its accuracy in portraying the U.S. troops in battle gear rather than parade uniforms and for capturing the topography of each scene which gave the viewer the feeling of witnessing the combat. As historian Tyler concluded, “In the end, the success of these images is due to the masterful and painterly coloring that Kendall demanded.… In many ways, Kendall’s and Nebel’s work was the perfect combination of journalism, history, and art”(16). This 1851 imprint won appreciation from an American audience who gloried in the triumph of the American soldier, the spirit of manifest destiny, and the acquisition of a huge territory that included present-day California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah as well as parts of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming. Now the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. This magnificent tome by Kendall and Nebel is highly respected today not only as an important chronicle but also as one of the great illustrated books of the nineteenth century. William Reese (1955–2018), the late dean of antiquarian booksellers in the field of Americana, wrote in his The Best of the West, “This is the most important pictorial work relating to the Mexican–American War”(17).
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #126. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
1. An invaluable source on Nebel’s first color plate book is Pablo Diener, “Picturesque Mexico: Intinerary of Exoticism” pp. 74–75 in “Carl Nebel: Pintor Viajero del Sigle XIX,” Artes de México, Numero 80 (2006). This volume is a bilingual publication and Diener’s text was translated into English by Michelle Suderman.
2. Ray Howgego, The Book of Exploration quoted in William Reese Company’s online catalog description of four original Nebel watercolors at www. williamreesecompany.com. Previously, it was believed that no originals of Nebel’s work survived.
3. Diener, “Picturesque Mexico: Intinerary of Exoticism,” pp. 74–75.
5. An aquatint is “a method of etching a printing plate [usually copper] so that tones similar to watercolor washes can be reproduced.” Merriam-Webster.com/ dictionary/aquatint.
6. Diener, “Picturesque Mexico,” p. 76.
7. A “Californio” is a person of Hispanic descendent born in California. They were sometimes referred to as the elite families of pre-American rule such as the Vallejos, de la Guerras, Picos, Bandinis, and Coronels.
8. The State Library acquired its copy of The War between the United State and Mexico prior to 1871 as it is listed in Ambrose P. Dietz, Bibliotheca Californie: A Descriptive Catalogue of Books in the State Library of California. Volume
II.–General Library. Sacramento: D. W. Gelwicks, State Printer, 1871.
9. For this section, I relied on three principal sources: Ron Tyler, “A Great American Book: The War between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated,” pp. 77–80, in “Carl Nebel: Pintor Viajero del Sigle XIX,” Artes de México, Numero 80 (2006); Rick Stewart, “Artists and Printmakers of the Mexican War,” pp. 36–39; and Ben W. Huseman, “Catalogue of Prints and Daguerreotypes,” pp. 109–110 in Eyewitness to War: Prints and Daguerreotypes of the Mexican War, 1846– 1848, Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum and Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
10. Tyler, “A Great American Book,” p. 75.
11. As Americana authority William Reese pointed out, despite having the New York and Philadelphia imprint on the title page, the book was printed in Paris and New Orleans. William S. Reese, Best of the West: 250 Classic Works of Western Americana, New Haven, Connecticut: William Reese Company, 2017, p. 146.
12. Huseman, “Catalogue of Prints and Daguerreotypes,” pp. 109–110.
13. Tyler, “A Great American Book,” pp. 77–80.
14. Ibid, p. 78.
15. Ibid., p. 79 and Rick Stewart, “Artists and Printmakers of the Mexican War,” p. 37.
16. Ibid., p. 80.
17. Reese, Best of the West, p. 146.