A Brief Comment About Civil War Art

Civil War Culture, Civil War Historians, Lost Cause, Religion

Robert Moore has a wonderful post in response to a very brief comment I made concerning a Mort Kunstler print. As usual the post was taken by the usual suspects for a general attack against all things Confederate and Southern or even as a personal jab at the artist – talk about “same ole, same ole.” I recently read Gary Gallagher’s new book on Civil War culture and memory, which includes an excellent chapter on Civil War prints. I am fascinated by the continued popularity of these prints and those subjects that tend to sell.

From a Reader: “I would like to see an acclaimed Civil War artist paint Grant or Sherman holding a tiny christian child. I suppose many would think that Grant would be too drunk to hold it while Sherman would try and burn it.”

While the comment is quite funny, it does hit on a fundamental truth regarding the agenda of most Civil War artists and that is they tend to focus on all things Confederate. Of course, this is what sells, but it is the fact that subject is so skewed that is worth our attention. First, you will be hard pressed to find Grant or Sherman in a print gallery. It seems to me that our collective memory much more easily embraces Confederates as something more than military men compared with their Union counterparts. Think of all the prints which depict Jackson, Lee, Stuart and even Forrest in religious scenes and other domestic scenes. You can find them praying just about everywhere, holding babies, and loved ones or just sitting around the fire place reveling in song and the presence of young southern belles. Please keep in mind that this is not a criticism, but an observation. My guess is that most Civil War enthusiasts would be unable to wrap their heads around the same scenes, but with Union officers. If we were to rely solely on Civil War prints to distinguish between Union and Confederate (North v. South) we would have to conclude that northerners were bloodthirsty atheists who had little interest in religion, family, and home.

In the end I think these prints are more about us than they are about the subjects they depict. The intention is to engender in us a certain emotion, which may or may not have any connection with history. Notice all of the emotion that is depicted in some of these domestic scenes. Are we really supposed to respond to these images as reflective of history or are they simply the imaginative constructs of the artists? Our primary interest is to be entertained by the war; in this regard I include myself. The art minimizes the horror of war, including the battlefield scenes painted by Troiani which hang on my office walls. We don’t really want to be reminded of the extent of the suffering that took place on and off the battlefield or the carnage that was left in its wake.

11 comments… add one

  • Mark Nov 12, 2008

    Hi Kevin,
    I serendipitously wrote a post about Civil War combat art on my blog yesterday. My take on the accuracy and validity of this genre, particularly when it comes to combat, is quite different than yours. Troiani, Kunstler et al are lauded for their accuracy and realism, and yet somehow the stark absence of combat trauma is overlooked as evaluation criteria. This is something I strongly object to. If we are to have a complete and accurate understanding of what the soldiers of the Civil War went through, then depictions of something ghastly that are sanitized for use as a commodity should not be a part of it.
    Your point that we don’t want to be reminded of the extent of the soldier’s suffering is well taken, but we can’t have it both ways. If we are to remain faithful to the memory of their sacrifice, we cannot modify it to fit our current needs. We must be, above all, respectful and honest about all facets of the Civil War, be it debunking the Lost Cause mythology or depicting the horrible brutality of combat. Civil War combat art must either live up to these criteria, or not retain the praise of being historically accurate.

  • admin Nov 12, 2008

    We agree 100% Mark. Thanks for the comment.

  • Robert Moore Nov 12, 2008

    Mark, Looking at your post heading, I’m in agreement with the need for a moratorium on combat art. Best, Robert

  • Woodrowfan Nov 13, 2008

    Is it my imagination, or do they not only concentrate on Confederates, but also on those who fought mostly in Virginia? (Forrest excepted). Where are the touching pictures of Joe Johnston? OK, Hood and Bragg I can see being left out, but Johnston was a good general and very, very popular with his men.

  • Lee White Nov 13, 2008

    It all comes down to what sells. Blood doesnt sell, western theater doesnt sell, except for Forrest and Cleburne. I know some artist would like to do other subjects, but it all comes back to what makes them money.

  • Lee White Nov 13, 2008

    pardon the spelling, lack of sleep and medication has me inventing spellings today.

    Lee

  • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2008

    Lee and Woodrow, — That’s another aspect of the print culture that is worth exploring. Thanks

  • Lee White Nov 13, 2008

    Kevin, I have done a little work over the years for Troiani, and truth be told he would be happy just painting Rev War scenes and Zouaves.

  • Tim Abbott Nov 13, 2008

    It is curious that the same war that prompted Currier & Ives to mass produce lithographs for mass consumption in sanitized, stoic uniformity also inspired Alexander Gardiner to expose the dead of Antietam to sheltered eyes at home. One kind of art could be hung in your drawing room and clearly sold well. The other seared the brain and was a sensation in exhibition but not something you wanted above the mantlepiece. Its impact must be judged in other terms.

  • Western Artwork Nov 27, 2009

    Mort Kunstler is the real deal. his civil war vision captured in paint is realistic, more like a photo but even better… :D

  • Western Artwork Nov 27, 2009

    Mort Kunstler is the real deal. his civil war vision captured in paint is realistic, more like a photo but even better… :D

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