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Today’s artists paint new life into history

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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.

Premier painters

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."

Stressing authenticity

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.

"Many times I've ... helped bury old 'chestnut' stories like A.P. Hill's red shirt. For years Jackson has been portrayed at First Manassas in the wrong cap. ... [Robert E.] Lee, [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain and other notables are nearly always incorrectly portrayed." Mr. Troiani's promotional materials bristle with academic endorsements from professors, curators and deep-detail authors.

Shunning a rivalry

Mr. Troiani regards himself and his work highly, as do many, though his popular acclaim has been second to Mr. Kunstler's. Rather than put his works on plates, mugs, pillows and such, he sticks to limited-edition prints with runs a bit smaller than common and prices a bit higher. That's one way to be a great professional artist.

It's not the only way. Mr. Kunstler goes by "America's most collected military artist." The animated septuagenarian also calls himself simply "America's artist" and backs it up with decades of affecting work ranging over subjects from the Revolution to the space shuttle. He started Civil War work with 1982's CBS miniseries "The Blue and the Gray" and has been plying it almost exclusively since 1988.

Though Mr. Kunstler's and Mr. Troiani's Civil War careers have spanned the same years, Mr. Troiani, nearly a generation younger, settled on the Civil War with less venture in other subjects. The artists shun rivalry talk and even most direct comparisons. Mr. Kunstler exudes easy magnanimity and brushes aside the topic. Mr. Troiani is somewhat more stern, as shown by the observations above.

TV and movies

In 1993, Arts and Entertainment devoted a special to Mr. Kunstler's work. Mr. Troiani, meanwhile, embellished A&E's long-running "Civil War Journal."

Mr. Kunstler has long allied with popular historians, including Henry Steele Commager, James McPherson and James I. Robertson, who endorse his work and have written text for his beautiful coffee-table books. Mr. Troiani, in his own marvelous books and other projects, has associated with the excellent Alexandria historian-author Brian Pohanka.

Both men's long lists of credits include associations with feature films. Mr. Kunstler was official artist for Ron Maxwell's "Gettysburg" and this year's "Gods and Generals" -- the latter prompting the senior citizen's output of 17 works on Lee, Jackson, Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock in 2002. Mr. Troiani contributed to the upcoming Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law film "Cold Mountain."

Portraits and studies

New York's Hammer Galleries have given Mr. Kunstler one-man shows regularly since 1977. His 1998 Nassau County Museum show broke an attendance record held by a 1997 Picasso display. Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore declared March 18, 1999, Mort Kunstler Day, and Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy displayed his one-man show "The Confederate Spirit" in 2000.

The former National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Rockwell International artist started out with such magazines as National Geographic. He turned out appealing Western and other historical images of America and rendered modern subjects such as Patty Hearst and the 1975 Mayaguez rescue (the Newsweek cover). He might be thought of as a Carl Sagan of the Civil War, bringing it palatably to wide modern audiences.

His promotional materials describe on-site research and academic consultations sure to impress nearly everybody, but "hey," he says, "nobody knows everything about everything. ... I'm into dramatic accuracy."

He reaches competently and winningly to places where Mr. Troiani chooses not to tread: night snow scenes and civics pieces such as fine renderings of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in debate, and Lincoln seconds after the Gettysburg Address. Mr. Troiani doesn't do ball or party scenes, such as Mr. Kunstler's handsome "Moonlight and Magnolias."

The younger man concentrates, essentially, on two types of paintings. His brightly lit battlefield scenes showcase dynamic realism of individual and mass motion, of facial variety and expression. Whereas Mr. Kunstler does close-up portraits of major leaders, Mr. Troiani renders highly accurate studies he calls "regimentals" of individual common soldiers of specific units.

Market appeal

Much as a brisant, hard-bitten Troiani battle scene can dignify a room, Mr. Kunstler's inclusion of civil community informs his broad-market draw. Works such as his picture of Jackson saying goodbye to his wife, Anna, the pair framed in the night glow of a snowbound church, appeal more to women, who are said to be more than half his buyers.

Mr. Troiani's devotees tend to be men -- soldiers and scholars who keep his prints officially sold out, with the secondary markets commanding much more than the initial limited-edition print price, which is usually $250.

Fredericksburg was brutalized and pillaged by the Army of the Potomac just before becoming the venue of that army's most crushing defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee -- which so appalled and elated the Virginian general that he remarked, "It is well war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it." Today, it's a great place to go for Civil War art.

Up Caroline Street, today pretty and shoppy, Yankees pushed under constant fire (see Mr. Troiani's "Fire on Caroline Street") toward their awful repulses on Marye's Heights. Today, the street has several galleries offering their own cross sections of the genre. Neighbors at 718 and 720 are Valor Art & Frame and the Grey Ghost Gallery.

Where to look

Joseph Fulginiti's Valor is a top Troiani specialist closely connected to the artist. Grey Ghost is the endeavor of Deborah and Richard Miller, who decided in 2002 to open next to Valor with a gentlemen's agreement to refrain from Troiani sales. Just down the street is Fredericksburg Historical Prints, offering Mr. Kunstler and Mr. Strain, among others.

Mr. Kunstler's excellent Web site is www.mortkunstler.com.

His publisher, American Spirit, is reached at 800/850-1776.

See Mr. Troiani's work at www.dontroiani.com. His Historical Art Prints distributor is at 203/262-6680.

Mr. Strain's work can be perused at www.johnpaulstrain.com, and business done at 817/560-2143.

Mr. Gallon: www.gallon.com.

Mr.Schmehl: www.bradleyschmehl.biz.

AmericanMastersGallery.com, an online vendor in Northern Virginia, features Kunstler and Strain work as an authorized dealer for both and also sells Troiani, Gallon, Stivers and other pieces (800/547-9232).

Many other resources can be found by searching such general terms as "Civil War art."

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