Friday, May 8, 2009

Military Art and the Art of War: Can We Get Art Historians to Study Military History?

One of my favorite past-times at home or on the road is to visit art galleries in search of artwork that might offer some insights about war, warfare, and its practioners. However, I have learned that these excursions also present the risk of coming within earshot of art museum docents, guides, and experts as they explain the military scenes and subjects depicted, all too often exposing gaps in their knowledge of military history, war, and warfare.

One my first such experiences was at the National Gallery of Art exhibition Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art. This exhibit brought together a small selection of works tracing the career of this American artist, including some of his Civil War drawings and paintings. Of particular interest to me was “Home Sweet Home”, depicting two Union Army soldiers in a moment or relaxation in camp. Also in this exhibit was “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty”. This image first appeared as an engraving in Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862. It depicts a Union Army sharpshooter in a tree drawing a bead on a long-range target, a scene captured during McClellan’s Peninsular campaign which sought but failed to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia.

As I was studying the two paintings, a National Gallery guide led a group of visitors into the small gallery. The guide presented a general and not inaccurate description of the two paintings, though he skipped over a number of details that I had found particularly interesting and was clearly not as immersed in the Civil War. He was apparently unaware that the sharpshooter in the painting was an image from the Peninsular campaign and insisted on linking it to the later Battle of Antietam fought in western Maryland, apparently not knowing that Winslow Homer was actually present during the former campaign. As for the campfire scene in the first-named painting, my examination of the canvas quickly convinced me that one of the soldiers had placed his tin cup on the fire to make himself a cup of coffee – something I had myself done as a Civil War Reenactor and Living Historian. I also knew from my study and from my reenacting experience that the Union Army (and most modern reenactors) almost literally ran on coffee.

As the guide continued to examine “Home Sweet Home,” he referred to the tin cup on the fire as a small pot and declared that the soldiers were making stew. At this point I was unable to restrain myself and said loudly enough to be heard by the guide and the small group of visitors that actually the soldier was making himself some coffee in his tin cup. The guide ignored my comment even when I repeated it more briefly, refusing to even acknowledging my existence. I listened a little longer to his discussion of the paintings before leaving the room unacknowledged and apparently unheard, though I surrendered enough to impulse to tell one of the museum guards that “this fellow may know art but he knows next to nothing about the Civil War.”

The National Gallery’s web site presents this painting for online viewing (link above) with a zoom feature that allows the viewer to enlarge details of the image for closer examination. Using this feature I have found that you can actually make out the curve of the top of the handle of the tin cup just above the rim at the back of the cup as it sits on the fire. You can take advantage of this capability to conduct your own examination of the image and draw your own conclusion. I should add, however, that in the catalog for the 1988 San Francisco exhibition Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War there are citations from a number of critics’ comments upon “Home Sweet Home” dating from its first public showing in 1863. Among these, T.B. Aldrich wrote in The New York Illustrated News (16 May 1863) that this work:

“…shows a Federal camp at supper time. The band in the distance is playing ‘Home Sweet Home’ in the immediate foreground are two of the boys, one warming the coffee at the camp fire, and the other dreamily watching the operation….”

More recently I found myself in similar circumstances at the Seattle Arts Museum where I went to see the traveling exhibit Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery. This is a great exhibit of selected works from the Yale University collections that have been put on the road instead of into storage while their permanent home is undergoing renovations. The exhibition included two works of particular interest: “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill,” painted by John Trumbull, and a photograph of unfinished pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, taken during the American Civil War. Examining the placard describing the photograph of the pontoon bridges I found that it referred to the “unsuccessful siege of Fredericksburg,” described as unsuccessful because the bridges were never completed – according to the caption writer. Unfortunately for the Union troops involved, the “siege” actually did succeed as the bridges were completed, the Army of the Potomac crossed the river, and on December 13, 1862, engaged the Confederates entrenched on the heights beyond the town of Fredericksburg. The Civil War Preservation Trust website hosts an excellent presentation on the campaign and battle that goes into detail both on the bridges and the resulting battle.

As disappointing as I found the erroneous caption, it wasn’t until I returned to examine the photo again that I had another of those encounters with a guide. A Seattle Art museum guide was discussing John Trumbull’s painting “The Death of General Warren” (aka “The Battle of Bunker’s Hill”) depicting the battle fought on Breed’s and Bunker’s Hills in Charlestown opposite the city of Boston on 17 June 1775. At the approximate center of the canvas, the American patriot General Warren is lying in the arms of a comrade who is pushing away the bayonet of a British soldier attempting to thrust it into the dying American’s body. That soldier is also restrained by a British officer, Colonel John Small, who reportedly recognized the prominent American rebel and actually called out to him to surrender to avoid being killed in the final moments of the battle.

The guide attributed the British colonel’s act of restraint to a sense of community and kinship between the British and the American colonials. However, other accounts of the battle make it clear that such a sense of kinship was not universally shared among the British. As the leader of the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety, Warren was a recognized leader among American patriots and his death was welcomed by many British officers. General Gage is reported to have said Warren’s death alone was worth the death of 500 other rebels. Another British officer, Captain Lane, who had been engaged in the running battle between Concord and Lexington and Boston before participating in the repeated assaults on the American positions, boasted that he had happily buried Warren in an unmarked common grave and hoped that he would never be found and identified. Finally, while elaborating on this point, the guide never chose to mention that the artist John Trumbull actually painted this work while in London, England a few years after the revolution and while studying there under the British artist Benjamin West – known for his own dramatic portrayals of British Army victories – a fact that can reasonably be concluded to have had some influence on how John Trumbull chose to portray the British Army on his own canvas.

These experiences have not totally dampened my enjoyment of these military scouting trips in the world of the fine arts. Just recently I toured a now closed National Gallery of Art exhibition – Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age – which brought together a collection of 17th century Dutch works focused upon the cities and urban scenes of the then newly independent United Provinces. These presented great views of the extensive fortifications that protected many of these cities from the forces of Spain during their independence struggle. There were also several canvases that presented the Dutch soldiers and militia in full regalia and kit, offering excellent information regarding their armaments, uniforms (such as they were), and even their level of drill and military training. But the sum total of my experience in such excursions is to tread warily when an art expert or even art historian describes for you the details of military history, war, warfare, etc. based upon the art work presented by that expert. Try doing some research of your own or find a military historian or expert on the war or period presented and compare the museum works to what these experts can tell you about the relevant military art.

Note: For the works of Winslow Homer, I have found two especially good sources: Winslow Homer, Paintings of the Civil War, by Marc Simpson with contributions by others, published by The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the publishers Beford Arts, to accompany the 1988 exhibit of the same name (ISBN 0-88401-060-0 paper/ISBN 0-938491-15-6 cloth). For his engravings, I have The Wood Engravings of Winslow Homer, edited by Barbara Gelman, published in 1969 by Crown Publishers (LoC 73-75096).