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Brushstrokes of Blue and Gray: 21st Century Civil War Artists

Bradley Schmehl of York County, Pennsylvania, is one of a new generation of very talented artists who focus on the American Civil War and other historical topics. Brad’s painting of the burning of the Columbia Bridge graces the cover (under license) of the popular Savas Beatie book Flames Beyond Gettysburg by Scott Mingus.

Katherine Brazauskas,  a Master’s Degree student at Georgetown University, has written an interesting essay on the role of modern artists within the Civil War community and the efforts most go to to ensure accuracy in their work. She contacted the Cannonball blog and submitted a feature article entitled Brushstrokes of Blue and Gray, which covers modern painters of the Civil War, the social relevance f such paintings, and artist, historian, and collectors’ perspectives on these historical works. This feature takes the reader on an historical detective chase: introducing painters that go to painstaking lengths to ensure the accuracy of an event, from taking soil samples to even analyzing which way the wind was blowing 150 years ago during the battles.

Brushstrokes of Blue and Gray is also supported by a detailed web blog that adds to the value of the feature story by creating a space that brings the artwork to life through multimedia presentations and rich, dynamic written content.

Brushstrokes of Blue and Gray

Nearly everyone has read about the Civil War, watched a movie about it, or seen the iconic photography taken during the conflict.  However, the most accurate depictions of the event receive less praise and are appreciated by far fewer Americans.  A small but dutiful crop of American artists are attempting to keep the historical accuracy and importance of the Civil War alive through modern paintings and drawings of battles and the heroes who fought them.

“I can tell you right now, what you are wearing, what size clothing you have on, that is a result of the Civil War, our whole lives are different and radically changed by the events that took place in the 19th century,” Dr. James Robertson, Jr. points out.  The Civil War rocked our nation, pegging brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and divided a once united America.  This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, a time for reflection, education, and understanding.

Visitors Centers, museums, educational institutions, galleries, and private collections store paintings of the Civil War, pivotal events on canvas that have come to represent more than just an aesthetically pleasing image.

Wayne E. Motts, Executive Director of the Adams County Historical Society and longtime historian for Civil War artist Dale Gallon of Gettysburg, Pa. understands the cultural significance of these paintings and scrupulously researches each event before Gallon puts brushstroke to canvas.  “Without documentation we wouldn’t be able to make an accurate picture,” Motts comments.  “One of the great relevances of this work is that you can take a scene that is described on paper and give visual reference for that, and that’s very hard for people in today’s society to understand.”

Motts transforms from bookworm into detective, spending months in search of documentation to insure precision in Gallon’s paintings.  He often finds himself at the site of where the event took place or poring over boxes of unorganized, primary source documents.  This research brings him to a range of locations such as the National Archive Building in Washington, DC or Shiloh National Park in Shiloh, Tennessee.  “It’s crucial that we get these paintings right, the accuracy needs to be there so we can exhibit history,” Motts says.

What constitutes an exceptional source are first-hand accounts, journals, letters, official documents, and reports.  The Civil War was the first war to be photographed.  Mathew Brady, the father of photojournalism, invested $100,000 in photo documentation of the war.  Motts notes that period pictures are helpful but they only go so far.  “Brady’s photographs are helpful but they are limiting because they are in black-and-white.”  Gallon paints in fresh hues making Motts’ detective work even more important.  Hair color, eye color, height, weight, and physical features are all in need of primary source documentation.  As sources are gathered and culled through, Motts and Gallon take to the battlefields.

“I happen to live within a mile or two of where General Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into the pivotal battle of the War.  The battlefield is my office,” Gallon says.  Important information is then gathered right from the land, including formation of the field itself, boulder size, and seasonal plant and crop growth all coming into account.  “Photographs are helpful for crop analysis,” Gallon says, and Motts confirms, “You have to know in what month, what fields would be growing and just because a field has corn in it today doesn’t mean it was growing 150 years ago,” he points out.

Sometimes the first hand accounts are not the best for evaluating what actually happened.  Gallon holds three questions constant when determining if an historical document is accurate while working on a painting commission: “When did he write it?  What was the motive behind writing it – was this a CYA sort of thing to protect their or someone else’s reputation? Was he there and in a position to be factual about what he was writing?”

Gallon and Motts are not the only ones asking these questions.  Civil War artist Mort Kunstler has been devoted to capturing not only battles but also the more human and romantic side of the Civil War.  Jane Kunstler, Mort’s daughter, explains that it is all about connecting with the audience and sharing the past with the present.  “About fifty percent of Mort’s collectorship is comprised of women, they are right there with their significant others deciding what painting they would like to purchase,” she explains.

The Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia installed an exhibit of Kunstler’s works entitled “For Us The Living” on April 3, 2011, as a celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  Uncertain of the reaction of the patrons of a 120,000 sq ft. southern museum devoted to Western-American artwork, Jane was amazed that on the opening night of the exhibit people were inquiring about purchasing some of the original works.  “Three sold right away, I wasn’t ready for people to purchase these works,” she said, still sounding surprised.  The exhibit’s mass appeal is a testament to the interest that Americans still have for the Civil War.  That so many patrons were interested in taking the paintings home with them further displays the connection that is struck by viewers of modern Civil War art.

“It’s what the American public needs, a remembrance of the past to base future actions,” David Birdwell says.  Birdwell, Instructional Systems Specialist at U.S. Army War College, speaks about America and Civil War paintings with sincere passion.  “I love America and everything we stand for, and I feel a servant to the people of this country to protect them at all costs,” he explains.

Touring around the U.S. Army War College, the walls are decorated with original works by Dale Gallon, Mort Kunstler, Keith Rocco, and many other narrative artists’ works.  The hundreds of paintings are a physical depiction of the important historical event as well as the time and dedication spent on each piece.  “I guarantee you if you understood the magnitude of each event that covers the canvas here, it would bring you to tears,” Birdwell says as he moves through the long hallways.  Officers, ranging in rank from lieutenants to generals, meet in the halls, standing square to a painting, their eyes focusing on the scene, “off to a meeting, heading to the library, they all take in this artwork and understand it as their own fight,” said Birdwell.  Each U.S. Army War College graduating class commissions a painting by a well-known artist. These works embody the bravery of past American commanders for the newest ranks of heroes fighting far off wars.

Dr. James Robertson, Jr. understands the plight of the men that have given so much to a cause and the social justification that needs to be reached when learning about the Civil War.  A recently retired Alumni Distinguished Professor in History at Virginia Tech and author or editor of over twenty award-winning books on the Civil War, Robertson is well engrained in the culture of the Civil War.  He speaks as passionately as Birdwell when describing the social impact that modern paintings of the Civil War have on our society.

“It is our responsibility to never forget our nation’s history as it plays such an impactful roll on our present situation,” Robertson says.  Robertson served as Executive Director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission and is a charter member of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.  Robertson’s personal campaign of educating our society about the events of the 19th century are noteworthy, and it is through his work with artist Mort Kunstler that history has come alive through pictorial reference.  The historical books of Robertson and Kunstler have become a time capsule on paper, “this combination of appealing to the eyes and ears at the same time,” Robertson explains, is a fusion of the senses.  Although text outweighs artistic renderings by sheer volume, paintings help draw into focus the pivotal events of the period.

Educational institutions, community art exhibits, and private collections place a frame around historical uncertainty.  The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) sheds new light on the past, allowing historical figures to move from paperback to painted walls.  Sid Hart, senior historian at the NPG stresses the importance of sharing Civil War art not just at times of commemoration but as a permanent installation.  NPG has two rooms on the first floor of the museum permanently devoted to Civil War history, “this shows how important the event was, we are not just doing this because of the anniversary,” he notes.  Hart suggests that if visitors want to get a strong sense of the toll the Civil War played on one man, they should visit the second floor exhibit where President Abraham Lincoln’s life masks are on display.  “If you compare the masks to the portraits of Lincoln done before and after the Civil War you can view first-hand the effect that the event took on one man,” he explains.

Putting the pieces of the past together to form a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing representation can prove difficult as well as revealing.  In fact, the paintings of the 20th and 21st century have captured many events of which little is known until historians and artists collaborated in revealing these touching moments of American history.  Motts recounts a commission that Gallon received depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee, resigning in April 1861 after thirty years of service.  The commissioning body wanted a dramatic rendition of Lee leaving on Traveller, his horse.  Gallon researched this specific moment in time and found out that Lee resigned wearing civilian clothing and traveled away in a stage coach.  “It’s this level of research that is necessary when taking on a commission,” Gallon explains.  Motts concludes, “Sometimes we think it’s one way in our mind, imagining the event far more dramatically than it took place.  Different frames of reference allow us to experience and create a totally distinct understanding.”  Even when a correct piece of work is crafted, each individual will look at and interpret the view differently.

Gilbert Ouderkirk has made an annual eight-hour pilgrimage from Ontario, Canada to Gettysburg, Pa. for the past decade.  “What brought me to Gettysburg was all the reading I’d done on the American Civil War,” he explains.  Ouderkirk wanted to see the battlefields for himself after reading words so quickly they seemed to dart across the page like bullets.  On his first visit he happened upon Gallon Historical Art Gallery and was awestruck.  “To see paintings of everything I have read about and then walk down the street and see the battlefield where it took place is captivating,” he said.  Speaking with him during his visit to the gallery he admits that Americans as a whole have more collective interest in the Civil War than Canadians.  His extensive collection of over a dozen paintings usually elicits a, ‘Wow, what’s that all about?’ and ‘What the heck ever got you interested in the Civil War?’  When he has visitors to his house Ouderkirk uses paintings as a teaching tool for those who know little about the conflict.  “They might not know a lot about the Civil War but when they see a painting, it sticks with them.”

The paintings bridge a gap between civilian and servicemen, American, or foreigner and speak a collective voice.  Ouderkirk says it best, “The paintings are a window to the past.  When you look at it [painting], well there it is and there you are.”

Echoes of the Past:  The Civil War 150 Years Later, an exhibit depicting both local Civil War history as well as 20th and 21st century museum works of art to the community of Elkins, West Virginia, is a small town example of the importance of modern Civil war paintings.  Doreen Hall, a founding member of the Art Center Board and Gallery Coordinator, felt it was her community’s responsibility to honor its past and its crucial role in the Civil War.  “Everyone in the community has a connection to the Civil War because of our location and the events that took place here 150 years ago,” she comments.  The Elkins area was the location of some of the first skirmishes of the Civil War in 1861.  This area was extremely important to both the North and South because of the B&O Railroad.  During the 1800′s, what is now West Virginia was part of Virginia and the land within a 30 mile perimeter of Elkins saw ‘turf wars’ as Union General George McClellan moved more than 20,000 troops to the region from Ohio and Indiana to control the railroad.  McClellan and his men were victorious and secured the area as a northern territory.  “Many outsiders forget what happened here in the Elkins area,” Hall explains, “We wanted to honor our history with visual representations.  Many people glass over this area and the fighting, we wanted to show it.”  The exhibit, funded with a combination of trustee, volunteer, and sesquicentennial-celebration support, includes paintings by Dale Gallon, Mort Kunstler, Keith Rocco, Gary Casteel, James Muir, John Paul Strain, Rick Reeves, Don Troiani, and many more.  This small but robust community event seems to fittingly represent the town that played a significant role in the Civil War.  Clearly, its townspeople and visitors take pride in their celebration and the importance of their area in the outcome of the Civil War.

It is against the backdrop of a small town like Elkins that one comes to understand the importance of modern Civil War paintings to the history of the conflict.  Americans look to the past to reassure their steps in the future, and in doing so, learn from history.  However, it is only though the unification of all historical mediums that accurate depictions of the Civil War can be produced.  As an artist lift’s their brush, paints remain segregated for only a short time before bleeding, blending, and unifying.  Such unification is needed in creating a masterpiece and it is through an introspective look at Civil War art composed in the 20th and 21st century that we find meaning and a deeper understanding of the past.