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John Adams Elder: Fredericksburg’s Artist of the Civil War Retrospective art exhibit

Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, Fredericksburg, Va., now through September 7, 2008 The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but the mystique of its “Glorious Lost Cause” continued to live on for years after the war, and still survives today. One artist who helped create, cultivate and perpetuate that idea of the Grand Old South was John Adams Elder, a native of Fredericksburg, Va., whose work has been brought home for a retrospective exhibit at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center— the first such collective display of Elder’s work in 50 years.

Elder was a painter in the school of realism who at age 17 moved to New York City and then to Dusseldorf, Germany, to improve his skills. He studied under masters such as Daniel Huntington and Emanuel Leutze before returning to Fredericksburg in 1860. When his home was damaged during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. His primary duty was to sketch ordnance for the War Department. He was present at the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg campaign, and later completed what is considered the definitive painting of that infamous Union debacle. After the war, Elder worked in Richmond and Fredericksburg, painting portraits of prominent figures such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and the late Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Elder spent the last five years of his life incapacitated by complications from malaria and the effects of a stroke. He died in Fredericksburg in 1895.

Elder’s artwork played a significant role in the postwar United States, helping to perpetuate the Lost Cause vision of Confederate independence and the Southern mystique of pride and nobility despite defeat. Elder was among the most respected and prolific of Southern painters during Reconstruction. A newspaper eulogy of Elder, hung as part of the Fredericksburg exhibit, declared that his art “will be prized by generations yet unborn.” That characterization is certainly true, or at least should be.

Elder’s paintings are noble and impressive, offering a textured vibrancy that evokes a strong response. Although Elder’s two best known works—his depiction of the Battle of the Crater (currently on display at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond) and his portrait of Stonewall Jackson (currently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)—are not part of the show, the portraits of Lee and fellow Confederate Generals Jubal A. Early, Edward Johnson and Joseph E. Johnston are. Indeed, the Lee portrait, finished in 1870, is one of the exhibit’s highlights, providing a rare postwar depiction of the general while not wearing a uniform. There also is a portrait of Edmund Ruffin, the man often credited with firing the first shot at Fort Sumter, and Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps the most impressive painting in the exhibit—and the one most indicative of the essence of Elder’s oeuvre—is the show’s centerpiece, After Appomattox, in which an unarmed Confederate soldier stares meditatively at the ground, with a wasteland depicting the South comprising the background. The painting’s dark colors express the downcast mood, but the soldier himself is proud and noble, philosophical even in his understanding of military—but not cultural—defeat. Elder’s portrait was so evocative that it was used as the model for M. Casper Buberl’s memorial Appomattox, erected in Alexandria, Va., in 1889 to commemorate the city’s Confederate sons.

The Fredericksburg Area Museum has done an admirable job creating this retrospective. The exhibit consists of only 20 or so oil-on-canvas paintings, but they are well chosen and impressively explained. They show a range of Elder’s talent with portrait, genre and landscape paintings, including ones of people and scenes not associated with the war. Also included in the exhibit are Elder’s letters, photos and possessions, mostly from the Civil War period, which provide an introspective look at his life. The show is family-friendly, too, complete with a children’s corner equipped with easels and painting materials.

Visitors will walk away from John Adams Elder: Fredericksburg’s Artist of the Civil War truly impressed by Elder’s talent. The museum also offers visitors much more local and regional history, and Civil War enthusiasts can enhance their experience by touring four local battlefields: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. A walk around Fredericksburg itself, “America’s Most Historic City,” is never a wasted experience.

John Adams Elder: Fredericksburg’s Artist of the Civil War runs from October 6, 2007, through September 7, 2008, at the Fredericksburg Area Museum, 907 Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg, Va. Tickets are $7 per person, $2 for students, and free for children under 6. Military, AAA and AARP discounts available. Call (540) 371-3037 for more info.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.