Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Painting Perspective / Teaching Paintings

Travels happened me by two major Civil War sites this summer. Of course I had visited both Gettysburg and Antietam many times before, but I thought that the detours were well worth the extra miles and gas so that I could see these places in the midst of the 150th celebration. I am working up a week’s readings on the 150th for my seminar this fall and was also fishing for assignable tidbits. I wanted to see both of these sites because of the special role they have played in Civil War landscape memory. Both are gems—beautifully maintained acres, shaped vistas, and of course amazing collections of monuments. Proximity to Northern railheads made these places the most commemorated battle sites and that century-old legacy has made Gettysburg, at least, a massive tourist site.

Both sites have well placed museums that work well with the site’s story and the flow of visitation.

Antietam on a perhaps digitally enhanced beautiful day.

Antietam’s museum is the older of the two, although it is very proud of its new introductory film—a reenactor-heavy narrative of the campaign peppered with talking heads like James McPherson. Gettysburg has a newly-built state of the art visitor center reflecting current museum trends and is a magnificent shrine to all things Civil War. Its equally new film, though, is a Gilder Lehrman Center product, and as a consequence is very current and comfortable with the political context of the battle and the war—something usually less evident in this genre. Visitors receive a sophisticated lesson in the politics of slavery and the war itself.

Both museums, much to their credit, devoted space to discussing landscape memory and the creation of these places as battlefield parks. Unsurprisingly, though, most visitors passed through these areas somewhat quickly—perhaps too quickly. But in both museums what caught my eye was a lamentable example of Civil War myopia—that familiar inability of some enthusiasts to imagine a past outside of 1861 (or maybe 1859), to 1865. In this case, it was connected to paintings both museums display.

Both Gettysburg and Antietam display breathtaking works of nineteenth-century art even though neither treats them as the masterpieces they manifestly are. These are paintings of battles scenes, Gettysburg’s is the work of a master and his crew, while Antietam’s are more vernacular in approach. Both sets of canvases are well known—so I am making no claim to a discovery here.

A small section of the Cyclorama.

The Gettysburg “Cyclorama” was the core of its own much-visited auditorium long before it was incorporated into the new NPS visitors’ center. The five Antietam battle scenes may be a bit more obscure, but they were included in Time Life’s much-read Civil War series, giving them a wide audience. My point, or rather what struck me on seeing them on this visit, was not their well known existence, but rather, the way their “artness” is all but ignored—subordinated—to the battle narrative at the center of the museums’ battle stories.

In both cases there is good and compelling reason to talk about these paintings as art, and not just as simple imaginary windows into the battle as they are currently viewed. At Gettysburg, visitors see an admirable Gilder Lehrman film and then walk upstairs to have a guide use lights and recordings to awaken the climactic moment of Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle. The vehicle for that experience is a vast painting (or set of paintings, really) that make up a huge 360 degree panorama augmented by wonderfully evocative landscaping that begins where the canvas ends at the floor. As lights come on and off , recorded explosions and dramatic “glinting bayonets” language create a “you are there” feel, and people love it. But what they are loving is a late nineteenth-century form of popular entertainment. Indeed, there were several of these immersive environments that patrons could see from Coney Island to the various expositions as well as all over Western Europe. This is the same art form that one can still enjoy in a more “naturalistic” setting in cases at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural history or at New York’s version, to name just two. Realistic, grand, and employing a brilliant level of craftsmanship, what makes the Gettysburg Cyclorama so gripping is all—all—the brushwork of master craftsmen.

In this case the artist was Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux and a team of selected workmen.

Philippoteaux at work

Nearly 20 years after the battle, he studied the area, commissioned detailed photographs, and spoke with survivors and then set in to create a true masterwork. But despite his research, the painting is oddly French. The soldiers wear uniforms that are clearly French in cut and markings–well beyond the French influence common in American uniforms of the time–and much of the equipment is French in form as well. The main house in the image is not made of the stone it was in real life, but is instead plastered brick in a French style, and most tellingly, large conical French haystacks dot the Pennsylvania fields. The result is an American moment filtered through French artistic eyes—one wonders if what we are seeing is Gettysburg, or some sort of Franco-Prussian War parable. These are wonderful jumping-off points for discussion. Yet, during our visit, the guide never even mentioned Philippoteaux (even though the paintings’ first showings boasted the painter’s name as loudly as the word “Gettysburg”).

The old Cyclorama

Visitors’ questions afterwards focused only on “who was where,” and no one felt any need to inquire about the art they were loving so—and no official papers or voices on hand even suggested that they might want to. Julia King has written about how museums’ uses of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings to describe uses of found artifacts work to superimpose antique discussions of class and gentility, and naturalize the effects of those hundreds-of-years-old texts.[1] We see the same thing here. These paintings were meant to teach, commemorate, and entertain—with an emphasis on the latter two, especially considering that still-living veterans were a major visitor constituency. Indeed, the paintings still serve these goals, except in that now the notion of teaching seems to have outstripped the other two missions—this art is a surrogate vantage point, a means of time travel, and an unquestioned authority for visitors. All of this grants a unique validity to a very singular artistic vision while rendering invisible the artist(s) and the process and logic of the paintings’ creation. That is a shame really.

A similar thing happens at Antietam. There, five huge battle scene canvases portray crucial moments of that messy and poorly executed fight.

James Hope’s painting entitled “Artillery Hell.”

The paintings were the work of James Hope—a painter and Union veteran who painted these remarkable canvases in his Watkins Glen, New York workshop around 1892. In time the paintings ended up in a church and in 1979 became NPS property. The NPS does a good job of telling a small version of their story online, and the exhibit gives a wonderful description of the effort to save one of the damaged canvases. But, there is almost no effort in the display to talk about Hope, how and why he made these masterpieces, or even the larger context of survivor art. Again, the result is that the paintings are simply teaching aids—a role that misses an huge opportunity and sells these works short.

Both settings have the physical space to discuss these paintings as art. I suppose what is missing is the interpretive space. I hope that  can change and that visitors can see this moving remarkable art as art.

[1] Julia King, “Still Life with Tobacco,” Historical Archaeology 41:1 (2007), 6-22.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: