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The War on Canvas

By Harold Holzer
11/7/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Long after the guns were silenced, new generations of artists produced haunting images of America’s most painful conflict.

In our own era of Künstler, Troiani and Gallon—eagerly collected illustrators of the Civil War—it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when many Americans thought such art ought to be neither produced nor displayed.

Writing about the unveiling of Peter Rothermel’s epic Battle of Gettysburg canvas in 1870, one critic assailed “pictorial representations of Yankees and rebels in all their respective fiendishness,” complaining that they were detrimental to sectional reconciliation. But the critic admitted a “malicious pleasure” about “the high price” paid by the Pennsylvania Legislature to commission Rothermel—a then-staggering $25,000.

Most Americans eventually got over such squeamishness and penny-pinching. Veterans’ homes and United Daughters of the Confederacy and Grand Army of the Republic halls needed decorations. Town squares cried out for statuary. And audiences hungry for spectacle thronged Civil War cycloramas. But many in the broader public never quite shed their discomfort with military art, which only widened as the wartime generation slipped further into history.

This is precisely what makes one particular body of work irresistibly compelling, though barely known: that which modern artists have produced to interpret the nation’s most unhealable wound. Many of the painters represented on the following pages have achieved acclaim for other genres. But there is no ignoring the originality and intensity of their efforts to re-imagine the Civil War and unravel and re-explore issues earlier artists shunned—particularly race, a neglected subject finally earning the artistic attention it deserves. The vivid work on these pages provides both a feast for the eye and nourishing food for thought.

1959

The Last Civil War Veteran

Larry Rivers (1923-2002)

News arrived, on the eve of the Civil War centennial, of the deaths of the war’s last surviving veterans. Centurions John B. Salling, who died in March 1959, and Walter Williams, who followed him in December, undoubtedly inspired this Larry Rivers painting, which obscured the old men’s Lost Cause backgrounds and conflated Confederate and Union memory with a background featuring the flag of each. Rivers, born Yitzhok Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx, began his career as a jazz musician, graduated to painting in the 1940s and became the Godfather of Pop Art. An enormously influential figure, he may be best known today for the controversial videos he took of his naked daughters as they grew up—an archive to which the Rivers children have since loudly objected. Rivers’ Last Civil War Veteran, confined to bed, fragile, his own personal history blurred by age and reconciled memory, awaits his imminent fate even as the nation gears up to commemorate his war. Ironically, not long after their deaths, reporters debunked the claims of both Salling and Williams. Neither name could be found in surviving records of the Confederate service. In fact, the last authenticated veteran had died in 1951.

2005

Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats

Kara Walker (1969- )

California native Kara Walker specializes in adapting old illustrations—like the woodcuts that once adorned mainstream Civil War–era newspapers like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s—to provide provocative alternative history. This she does through the use of brilliantly crafted, disproportionately superimposed silhouettes. A master of this all-but lost art, Walker’s large cut-out figures, however one-dimensional they seem at first glance, speak volumes about the suffering of enslaved black people, particularly women. Walker is frank and unrelenting about horrific subjects other artists—not to mention generations of historians—long neglected: rape, the birth of mixed-race children, lynching and the absence of black people from the benefits of Union victory. Edgy, shocking, sometimes bordering on pornographic, Walker’s figures are almost always either fleeing or being captured and abused by whites, bolting for their lives or suffering as a result of staying behind— while in the archaic background engravings, white soldiers head inexorably to victory. In this characteristic, if somewhat mild, 2005 lithograph, Walker tells the story of Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal GunBoats, from her portfolio based on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War. While the soldiers celebrate, this black woman runs for her life—or does she remain on her knees?

1961

War/Game

Peter Phillips (1939- )

Though no stakes were ever higher, English-born Peter Phillips deconstructed the American Civil War into checkerboard-like patterns for this large 1961 oil painting, War/Game. Uniformed Union and Confederate soldiers, flags draped dramatically behind them, appear at the top of the picture, crowning the composition within individual frames reminiscent of the tintypes Civil War soldiers once sent home to loved ones. But the brutal combat such troops actually experienced is merely suggested in the multi-colored, mosaic-like maze of puzzle pieces beneath the portraits, as well as a game board at bottom reminiscent of those made for playing Monopoly. Another giant of the Pop Art movement, Phillips was a student at the Royal College of Art, under the thrall of artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, when he created this painting—typical of his highly individual, segmented style. A conscious touch, perhaps, was the intriguing portrayal of black and white hands engaging with the game pieces, a subtle suggestion that race and slavery had indeed been at the root of the war, while its resolution might yet be America’s salvation. When the canvas was painted, the country was beginning not only its Civil War centennial—but its civil rights movement.

1983

Lincoln on the Battlefield

Malcah Zeldis (1931- )

There have been many portrayals of Union councils of war—G.P.A. Healy’s White House painting is the most famous—but few artists have imagined such meetings more originally than Detroit-born Jewish folk artist Malcah Zeldis. Her Lincoln on the Battlefield (1983) includes Generals Grant (left) and Sherman, but unlike earlier interpretations, suggests that this is a fantasy meeting mid-battle. Soldiers square off and fire at each other in the background, while at least one lies wounded and bloodied. The bearded men in the foreground look more like yeoman farmers than soldiers, and the fact that all of them seem vaguely to resemble their president suggests an entire generation falling under his influence. The table that dominates this scene, draped in Union blue, contains a Bible, along with a document, a quill and an inkwell. Can this be the Emancipation Proclamation—or a military directive? The meaning is left intentionally and provocatively vague.

1940

The Life of Harriet Tubman, #29

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

New Jersey–born, self-described African-American impressionist Jacob Lawrence once declared: “I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools….I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without the Negro.” Over a three-year period of breathtaking productivity, Lawrence made up for the neglect by producing 170 abstract paintings illuminating the lives of heroes Toussaint L’Overture, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and the “Moses” of her people, Harriet Tubman. This dazzling 1940 canvas is No. 29 in the Tubman series. After years spent ushering slaves to freedom, Tubman became a wartime cook, nurse and spy generally believed to be the only woman to lead a military action— the Combahee River raid in South Carolina. All the canvases were accompanied by text panels meant to “educate” viewers to the specific histories Lawrence wanted to share. For this picture the text reports,“She nursed the Union soldiers and knew how, when they were dying by large numbers of some malignant disease, with cunning skill to extract a healing draught from roots and herbs that grew near the source of the disease, thus allaying the fever and restoring soldiers to health.”

 

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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