Historian Shelby Foote has said any true understanding of American history and thus of America must be based (“and I mean based,” he said) on an understanding of the Civil War. For longtime buffs and newcomers alike, art is a visceral boon to such understanding. Given the war’s importance, its art deserves an honored place in mass culture.
War is a unique locus of both horror and glory. Only in the face of the most ugly, terrifying or despairing situations can human spirit and action mount their grandest heights. War art offering glory without horror, valor without insanity may be problematic, even dangerous. Civil War art does almost exclusively treat human strength, not depravity.
Civil War artists honor the North’s valor and virtue but tilt to the South’s, though the leading practitioners, save Texan John Paul Strain, are Northerners. Their reasons are historical facts. Much of the North and its vast population remained insulated from the war, while the South’s commitment, loss per capita and direct experience of devastation were much greater. Its final defeat after many great victories against great odds is a deep well of tragic, heroic drama.
Illustration and painting of the war began during the conflict and continued in the following decades, with artists including Thure de Thulstrup, Paul Philippoteaux, Peter Rothermel, Winslow Homer, Edwin Forbes and N.C. Wyeth. Philippoteaux created great cycloramas that were a dramatic precursor of film. Still, much Civil War art was stick-figure-ish and generally unrealistic, with rows of largely undifferentiated soldiers.
A small group of contemporary artists has raised the genre. Gettysburg-based Dale Gallon has steadily turned out four pieces a year since about 1980. Mr. Strain, perhaps the third-ranking figure in the field, paints richly colored, photo-realistic still and semiaction scenes, mostly of mounted Confederates.
A fine young talent named Bradley Schmehl is turning out some outstanding work. One arresting piece stars legendary Western Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest in a signature act. Surrounded at close range as he was more than once, with a splendidly fierce visage, he uses his physical strength and his mount’s motion to seize and raise a Yank as a shield, astonishing friend and foe alike.
Don Stivers, Keith Rocco and a passel of others deserve mention, but the premier artists are two titans to whom America owes and will owe much, Don Troiani and the field’s longtime commercial leader, Mort Kunstler. Both, among other self-chosen honors, defensibly claim the title “dean of Civil War artists.”
Rage — summoned for use or unbidden and uncontrollable. Fear, or outright terror. Grim resolve. Dread and loathing. Wise, sad resignation. A good artist might depict any. But all at once, in a tiny splotch of paint representing a face? That’s something special, and more so when the artist is a world-leading academic expert in his subject, with painting “just” an adjunct skill for sharing what he knows.
Mr. Troiani, who bills himself “America’s most respected military artist,” meets that standard. From a galaxy of superb work, consider “Excelsior.” Plumb the eyes of Col. George Ryan, leading the 140th New York in a deadly charge on May 5, 1864, in the Wilderness northwest of Fredericksburg. His face powerfully portrays the awful panoply of war’s emotions.
Mr. Troiani has little need to consult historians because he is a serious historian himself, perhaps the leading authority on Civil War uniforms and equipage. Still, he says, “Faces are my favorite thing to paint.” He poses a model for all facially visible figures in crowded scenes: “It’s the only way it looks credible.”
He stresses authenticity over what otherwise might make a salable image. In correspondence, he offered: “If a historical painting is not accurate, it is worthless both as art and as historical document. … I feel a debt to history and the soldiers who served to recreate the scenes as accurately as possible.”
He goes on: “You can have the finest [Stonewall] Jackson authority advising you. … However, he may not know exactly what type of bridle Old Jack was using or the proper way to hold it. He will not know an officer’s sleeve was cut wide in the elbow and small in the armhole. He could know the battleflag of the 37th Virginia was there but not which of the seven they carried in the war was used on that particular date. … Most general historians would not know a cavalry uniform jacket from a bellhop’s jacket.View Entire Story
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