Everybody’s talking about Civil War art

For the past few days, history bloggers have been buzzing about Civil War art, specifically the paintings of artists like Mort Kunstler and Don Troiani.  I thought I might as well weigh in.

The Tipsy Historian opened up with a Veterans Day salvo, arguing that modern-day Civil War art sanitizes the brutal reality of combat and distorts our view of the past.  He also compares these images unfavorably with wartime illustrations of battle:

There were of course contemporary artist renderings of Civil War fighting, most from journalists and troops who witnessed fighting. This art, while certainly not as refined as Mr. Troiani’s, pulled no punches when it came to showing destruction and death. You may be sure these depictions weren’t getting slapped up on the walls of private homes.

I’m not sure I agree with this.  There were a lot of people churning out battle pictures during and after the war, and many weren’t hardened eyewitnesses.  In my former capacity as an assistant curator, I looked at a lot of these prints and illustrations, and none were particularly explicit or accurate.  Take a look at this Kurz and Allison print of the storming of Ft. Wagner.  It dates from twenty-five years after the war, but the overall feel is similar to a lot of earlier material:

Personally, I think images like this one pull quite a few punches indeed.  There’s death, but it’s noble and remarkably clean.  If anything, there’s less gritty realism here than in most Kunstler and Troiani prints, which do convey something of the dirt, smoke, exhaustion, and confusion of warfare.  Of course, I’m not accounting for eyewitness sketches by people like Waud, but I think we can safely conclude that sanitized battle prints aren’t an exclusively modern phenomenon.

I also take issue with the idea that wartime images like these wouldn’t have been seen in private homes.  I suspect that accounted for a large portion of sales by firms producing images like the one above.  Anyway, the same blogger offers further thoughts on modern-day Civil War art here and here.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin takes a shot at a rather mushy painting of Robert E. Lee.  The sentimental depicitions of Confederate commanders that characterize many modern Civil War artworks bother him so much that one of his subsequent comments sounds almost like an apology: “I’ve admitted a few times that I own a number of prints by Don Troiani, which hang in my office. I consider them to be more on the line of investments considering that I have doubled my money.”  Admitted?  Geez, what’s to admit?  It’s not like we’re talking about soft-core porn.  Hey, we’re all history buffs around here, right?

I’d like to get a few historical prints myself, when I can spare the money.  I’ve been drooling over Troiani’s King’s Mountain and Cowpens pieces for a while now, and eventually I’ll probably buckle under and shell out the cash.  While I’m making out my wish list, I wouldn’t refuse one of the many Pickett’s Charge prints floating around out there; no history nut’s home is really complete without one.  These images may not convey the total reality of warfare, but they remind me of places I love and subjects that fascinate me, and they’re a cut above dogs playing poker.



Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

4 responses to “Everybody’s talking about Civil War art

  1. What can I say, sometimes I feel a little silly about my collection of prints. (LOL)

  2. mlynchhistory

    If you feel bad about your Civil War art, imagine how bad I feel about my dinosaur memorabilia.

    Michael Lynch

  3. Your points about artwork with a stronger temporal relation to the war is well-taken. My references were to works by Waud et al, that were and probably remain the most graphic depictions of Civil War combat.
    In your work as curator, when you would discuss Civil War with interested viewers, what was the discourse like on the level of realism present?

  4. mlynchhistory

    Thanks for your comment! That’s an interesting question. We occasionally used lithographs and other contemporary pieces for illustration, and in the captions we’d address distinctions between the way a battle was depicted in the piece and the way it actually unfolded, but I don’t recall any visitors specifically asking about it. Surveys indicate that people accord museum exhibits a much higher level of authority than books or other sources of information, so I think a lot of visitors assume that whatever they see is accurate, unless you make a point of telling them that there are discrepancies in things like artworks.

    Michael Lynch

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