In analyzing the thriving entertainment industry we optimistically call “Civil War history,” I’ve neglected the visual branch of the business, the painters.
Civil War painter Don Troiani once said, “If an historical painting is not accurate, then it is worthless as both art and investment.” He said, “I believe the more accurate the presentation is, the clearer our image will be of our heritage.”
“For longtime buffs and newcomers alike, art is a visceral boon to … understanding,” says Washington Times writer Mark Powell. Powell is an advocate of this kind of work. He seems to be saying that some people need color visuals to prime their reading imaginations.
Following Powell on this, I believe we have here illustrations that belong in certain books that were not commissioned … free-floating illustrations for narratives that have been internalized.
Powell’s take on actual, real Civil War artists, people who painted the war they saw, is revealing:
“Still, much Civil War art was stick-figure-ish and generally unrealistic, with rows of largely undifferentiated soldiers.”
Is he referring to Thomas Nast, Alfred Waud, or Winslow Homer? Perhaps, he is thinking of James Hope. Hope was generally conveying the truth of a human eye view of an entire battlefield in action. To his credit, this is not a truth that has ever been discovered or presented in that other visual medium, film. Look at this link and consider the meaning of truth.
Powell notes that “A small group of contemporary artists has raised the genre.”
But their idea of “raising the genre” is to contrive arrangements of historical personages in scenes imperfectly imagined with accuracy merely concerning bridles, uniforms, and weapons. The haircuts are guesswork, the complexions all speculation, the emotions are all leveled off. Almost everything about a modern Civil war painting strikes one as false. Except, perhaps, the details of physical equipment.
More on this tomorrow.