Acclaimed historian Shelby Foote insisted that any true understanding of American history, and thus of America, must be rooted in an understanding of the Civil War.
For Foote and scores of history buffs, often it was the power of pictures that helped trigger their curiosity. Soldiers marching up against a shower of shot and shell, seeing men mowed down by the dozens. After staring at those Civil War pictures for hours, the historians just had to uncover the stories behind them.
Newell Conyers Wyeth certainly played a significant role in their fascination. Owner of a constant and grand imagination, Wyeth poured it into a flood of dynamic pictures of the Civil War.
Marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Brandywine River Museum is exhibiting “Romance in Conflict, N. C. Wyeth’s Civil War Paintings.” Totaling 22 paintings drawn from private and public collections, visitors can step into Wyeth’s creative process through a selection of sketches, reference materials and props such as muskets, an officer’s wool cape and the distinctive kapi Civil War cap. The show is on display through March 20.
The exhibit shows how the legendary Chadds Ford artist prepared for these commissions, sometimes creating a picture at odds with its text, portraying the war as a courageous struggle and its combatants as noble warriors. It also includes Civil War illustrations by Alonzo Chapel, Harry Fenn, Winslow Homer and Howard Pyle from the museum’s collection.
A man of enormous energy and great talent, Wyeth’s first images of the war appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1906. From then until the end of his career, his quick, sure strokes were commissioned to paint Civil War subjects as illustrations, murals and even calendar pictures.
As the 50th anniversary of the Civil War approached in 1911, public interest in the war and its aftermath increased dramatically. Biographies, novels, eye-witness accounts, soldier’s letters, books and articles analyzing battles and strategies poured out across the country. Talented illustrators were as necessary as authors to this publishing frenzy.
Wyeth’s virtuoso works affirmed his belief that Americans needed to celebrate the heroism, bravery and patriotism of war, rather than the ghastly carnage and the battle’s other devastating aspects.
“Remember when the war’s remembrance was marked nationwide in 1911, many, many veterans were still alive,” related Christine Podmaniczky, Associate Curator, N. C. Wyeth Collections at the River Museum.
“Time had passed and many people looked at the war differently. People came together. The images presented the war—the battles, soldiers and civilians-- in a romantic, heroic manner. No matter what side you were on, the images were viewed as noble and patriotic.”
Book publisher Houghton Mifflin commissioned Wyeth to paint illustrations for “The Long Roll,” Mary Johnston’s epic novel of the war. He spent time with Johnston at her home in Warm Springs, Virginia, gathering material for his pictures which he hoped would surpass “the usual, the standard-war-picture type.”
Wyeth’s Virginia experiences transported him back in time. Emotionally, he felt overwhelmed. It was a reaction not only to the tragedy of the war, but also to the lost cultures of the antebellum South.
“Sightseeing, I hate the word,” the artist wrote to his mother from Warm Springs. “In reality it should be named sight-feeling.”
Returning to Chadds Ford, each morning Wyeth pulled his smock on over his work clothes and climbed the 45 flagstone steps to his studio on the hill. Hooking an enormous palette onto his left thumb he attacked the attacked the canvas, brushes in hand.
Wyeth conceived of the pictures for Johnston’s book as abstract rather than specific subjects. With the “The Battle,” “The Spy” and “The General,” the artist’s hope was that people that would recognize in them “first the tragedy of war,” and only afterward the narrative element.
One of the more striking works in the exhibition is a standing portrait of Stonewall Jackson on loan from the Virginia Military Institute Museum.
”It’s a very somber picture of Jackson in an isolated, lonely world,” Podmaniczky observed. “Commanding those men is a tremendous responsibility for the officers. Jackson is pictured eyes cast down, very much introspective and troubled.”
Paintings craved size
Wyeth came out of New England, a tall, active youth with a head full of hopes, ambitions, and pictorial dreams. As a youngster Wyeth felt that he had inherited his early passion for drawing from his mother’s Swiss family, and it was Henriette Zirngiebel Wyeth who encouraged her son’s artistic talent.
It seems as if Wyeth’s painting hand always craved size, and it was the enormous wall areas of a mural decoration that sent his imagination racing. One of his earliest murals was an Indian hunt for a hotel in Utica, N. Y. Buoyed by that success, Wyeth tackled larger projects such as the pair of Civil War lunettes for the Italian-Renaissance Missouri State Capitol building for which he was paid $8,000 in 1920.
Letters and a newspaper clipping confirm that Wyeth traveled to Missouri to carefully research the two Civil War battle subjects.
“The Missouri murals are romantic depictions of armies at war,” Podmaniczky explained. “One is the bravery and thrill of an impending cavalry charge, while the other is a beautifully painted landscape that diminishes the timeless horror of war.”
Like his fellow painters, such as Winslow Homer and Edwin Forbe, that depicted the dramatic intensity of Civil War, Wyeth was drawn to Abraham Lincoln. He painted his first picture of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address in a school illustrated textbook in 1919. Many of the specifics in his composition were taken from a picture of the inauguration by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, and Wyeth accurately rendered the important men who surrounded Lincoln on that day.
“He used the factual report that the sun broke through rain clouds just as Lincoln began to speak to illuminate his figure in a golden light, symbolic of Lincoln’s place in American history,” Podmaniczky explained.
“N. C. repositioned a large American flag that flew over the proceeding so that the tip hangs directly above Lincoln’s head. The dramatic lighting and the vivid red and white of the flag in an otherwise dark painting create an emotional high note.”
Inspired by his own brilliant imagination, Wyeth was able to transform simple written passages into magical visual scenes-- both the Civil War stories and his legendary adventure tales-- all the while capturing the hearts and minds of the viewer.
“Treasure Island” and “The Long Roll” illustrations were both created in 1911, the start of the decade where N. C. achieved so much notoriety,” Podmaniczky noted.
“He thrived on those heroic sentiments whether it was soldiers in battle or knights or pirates. Those virtues embodied in those storytelling novels very much appealed to his adventuresome nature.”
In recent years the River Museum acquired Wyeth’s ten volume set “The Photographic History of the Civil War,” published in 1911. It is on display in the exhibition along with a letter written by Wyeth to the editor of the book publisher, the Review of Reviews Company. It is dated August 8, 1911.
“It is far beyond any of my words to tell you what the "Photographic History of the Civil War" means to me,” wrote Wyeth. “To be drawn so intimately in touch with those stirring days is like realizing an extravagant dream!
“The impression made upon me is deep and profound and I feel highly grateful for the revelation. I don't know how to thank you! Furthermore, being an illustrator, the books are invaluable as a source of information.”