Some thoughts on Civil War art

Posted on November 12, 2008 by


Noting three different posts (here, here and here) in three different blogs about this print by Mort Kunstler, I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts of my own.

Are the criticisms really attacks on Southern heritage (also known by some of having some absolute prerequisite of being Confederate heritage) or is it just that some folks have had their fill of “moonlight and magnolias?” Since I’ve already made my point that Southern heritage is not necessarily Confederate heritage, I’ll move on from that.

First, however, maybe I need to post both the history behind the print and the thoughts behind why Kuntsler painted it. I captured this info from the Gallery Direct Art Site.

About the Art: Amid the wages of war, it was a celebration of life. On May 1, 1864, a high-ranking group of Confederate officers gathered at the Mayhurst located in Orange, Virginia. Chief among them was General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and one of his three corps commanders, General Ambrose Powell Hill. The purpose of the meeting was not wartime strategy: Instead, Lee and his lieutenants were assembled for the baptism of an infant. The child’s name was Lucy Lee Hill. She was the daughter of General Hill and his wife, Kitty. They had named her in honor of General Lee, who had agreed to be the child’s godfather and joined the parents at her baptism. Lee’s participation reflected a key character trait: humility. Although faced with a multitude of duties as army commander, Lee took time to participate in a child’s baptism. The Reverend Richard Davis of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Orange conducted the ceremony, dedicating tiny Lucy Lee to the Lord’s service as he baptized her with water from a silver bowl — in the name of “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Throughout the baptism ceremony, General Lee gently held baby Lucy Lee in his arms. It was undoubtedly a comfortable and pleasant experience for Lee, who was a devout Christian and the father of seven children. Although his duties had called him from home during much of his child-rearing years, Lee was a devoted father who doted on his children – and all of them revered him in return. Did he ponder similar moments in his own family life as he held the Hill infant at her baptism? It was a tender but fleeting moment for Lee, Hill and all the others present that memorable day in May. Soon, the spring campaigns would draw Lee and his army into a series of savage and bloody contests – the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. Within a year, General Hill would fall mortally wounded at the battle of Five Forks; Lee would surrender his tattered and battered army at Appomattox; and little Lucy Lee Hill – like countless other children in the North and the South – would be left fatherless. She would eventually become a revered figure in the South – a symbol of Southern courage and sacrifice – would be known regionally as the “Daughter of the Confederacy.” As for Lee, his legacy would become greater than simply military genius: It would become a legacy of character – and foremost among those traits was humility.

Mort Künstler’s Comments: What could I paint to commemorate the 200th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s birth? That’s the question I asked myself as I thought ahead to January 19, 2007. What could be the subject? I decided it had to focus on Lee, the man – but what event? Then, as I returned to Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr.’s wonderful biography of A.P. Hill, I discovered a possible subject. I double-checked R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman and was convinced that I had found the ideal situation. What emerged was the idea of Tender is the Heart.

“On May 1, a clear and warm Sunday,” wrote Dr. Robertson, “the Reverend Richard Davis of St. Thomas Episcopal Church baptized Lucy Hill in a ceremony at Mayhurst. General Lee was godfather and held the infant in his arms throughout most of the service.” What an appropriate scene to observe the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth! It would depict Lee the commander in uniform with some of his officers – and, most importantly for my purposes, it would show the humility of Robert E. Lee the man in a tender, poignant moment reflective of his character and personality. Imagine General Robert E. Lee holding a baby – General A.P. Hill’s baby – which to my knowledge had never been painted! The Mayhurst, where the baptism occurred, is now an inn – a picturesque bed and breakfast in Orange, Virginia.

Frank Walker, a knowledgeable local historian in Orange, helped with research about the event. Jack and Pat North, owners of today’s Mayhurst Inn, described the room in which the ceremony probably took place – and even obtained photographs of the silver bowl and goblet used in the ceremony. (The artifacts are in the collection of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Orange.) It’s all too easy to think of the Civil War in terms of huge battles and marching armies. But, as with all history, it’s actually the story of real people caught by passing events in a real time and place. The challenge for an artist like me is to capture the meaningful human moments that best represent the people and the events of the era. I hope Tender is the Heart is a reminder of the “other” side of the Civil War — and especially represents the heart of one of the era’s greatest figures: General Robert E. Lee.

Just my observation of the print here, but I’m not a big fan of Kunstler’s work. Something about the colors and depth. I prefer Troiani and some Rocco, although I am truly amazed at the photographic-like details in Strain’s art. But then, this is just my preference. Frankly, my stick people look pathetic.

So, in an effort to detach my personal preferences for art from this piece, I need to look at this from another angle.

First, from the comments made in reply to the post in Civil War Memory, I agree with something Brooks Simpson said. First and foremost, Confederate stuff sells. Kunstler knows his audience and knows that painting a scene filled with emotion will make a big splash among the folks who buy this type of art. Furthermore, the scene was obviously chosen to evoke emotion (you don’t have to look far beyond the title to figure that out). Yet, does it invoke something else that helps to reinforce the “moonlight and magnolias” image? Does this play on “imagined memories?” If so, how? Is this actually the problem seen by some?

That said however, why does all Civil War art have to be blood and gore? Obviously, the Civil War had plenty of it, but even Troiani takes care not to splatter the canvas with an abundance of such imagery. I have four Troiani works. In two of them, I see men lying on the ground, but the blood isn’t obvious and it certainly isn’t running in pools, nor do I see dismembered soldiers or soldiers tearing at their shell jackets to see if they received a gut wound. Some of his works show the chaos of battle and even the dead and wounded. He does this extremely well. Yet Troiani knows to go just so far and he knows that going too far will result in a piece that people won’t want to hang in any room in the house. I’m pretty sure that Kunstler and most Civil War artists know this as well (though, again, I think Troiani has the better grasp of portraying chaos in battle).

Troiani's Barksdale's Charge

Personally, my favorite pieces show soldiers standing by themselves in non-combat related instances. I have the Washington Artillery piece, and also like the one showing a Hessian smoking his pipe while on guard. Personally, I’m leaning toward purchasing the Hessian print because, even though it isn’t their regiment portrayed in the piece, to me, it best portrays my Hessian ancestors… neither likely fired a shot during the entire Saratoga Campaign!

Troiani's Washington Artillery of New Orleans Print
Troiani's Fusiler of the Hesse-Cassel Erb Prinz

The point is that there is more to military art than scenes of combat. Scenes of combat exhibit the apex of intensity. Obviously, scenes from the battlefield shouldn’t be glorified and we should not let ourselves get caught up in some mythical perceptions about what combat was like back then. However, there were many historical events, without the blood and gore, that though not on the battlefield, have a curious impact on the way we can reflect on the personalities portrayed in the art. If we have a battle scene before us, we can reflect on the chaos and horrors of the fight, but why do we need to be restricted to reflections on this alone? What about other times… after all, combat made up a relatively small percentage of the four years of the Civil War? Take, for example, Troiani’s piece “Decision at Dawn.” It isn’t a combat scene, but rather a moment portrayed for us as the viewer’s to immerse ourselves in an historical moment. When looking at this print, how does Lee’s expression impact our reflection on that particular historical moment? Knowing the context in which the image is presented, how does this impact our understanding of the time after this scene?

Troiani's Decision at Dawn

I think Civil War art is an effort in “immersion design.” How can the artist portray a scene that envelops the viewer, if only for a moment, in that historical event? Kunstler is trying to accomplish just that in the image at the beginning of this post. Yet, noting some discussion in another post today, maybe there is an apples to oranges comparison going on here between works produced by Kunstler and Troiani. I think the closest Troiani gets to tapping into anything tied to gender (including stereotypical beliefs in what appeals to male and female audiences) is his regimental print, “1st Regiment South Carolina Rifles.”

Troiani's 1st Regiment South Carolina Rifles

So, let’s get down to the core of the Kunstler piece shown at the beginning of this post. I’m curious. Is there any art focused on Union military leaders and their softer side? If so, what? If not, why? Is there anything really wrong with creating military art that shows scenes that feature things other than combat? Would art showing Union leaders in similar situations actually sell?

Note: All art clips presented in this post are used to stimulate educational discussion. The images of Don Troiani’s prints are sourced from the Historical Art Prints Gallery website.