Wartime artists recorded the intense drama of battle during the Civil War
Today, imagery from war-torn regions around the world is pretty much delivered within a few hours. But 150 years ago, during the Civil War in this country, images of the battlefield were delivered weekly to the public via illustrated newspapers like Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
And though it took teams of writers, engravers and printers to deliver that illustrated news, it all began with the battlefield artists, otherwise known as “special artists,” who recorded the war firsthand, literally, as it was happening. They were the ones who lived alongside the troops, risking death, injury and disease to convey the high drama with pencil and pen.
The exhibit “Civil War Era Drawings From the Becker Collection,” opening Nov. 9 at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze, delivers that drama yet again, in the form of nearly 120 original drawings and some 50 related pages from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. They reveal the realities of the war as palpable as the day they were created.
“There was a lot of public demand for coverage,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum. “Photography at the time couldn't capture movement or interiors that well, and the equipment being used at the time was too cumbersome to be used out in the field of battle even if it could. So, artists were really necessary to capture that sort of on-the-spot sense of the action.”
Once a Special Artist produced his drawings, they were then sent to New York for translation into printed engravings, which would appear in the newspapers sometimes in as soon as a few days.
Hall says that, between Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and the New York Illustrated News, which were the three major illustrated newspapers published at that time, “there were over 3,000 images published during the four years of the war.”
By far, the most prolifically illustrated newspaper among them was Frank Leslie's, which claimed to have more than 80 contributing artists.
A British-born engraver who once headed the engraving department of the Illustrated London News, Leslie immigrated to the United States in 1848, where he developed a unique way to divide the labor for making wood engravings. A single design would be divided into a grid, and each engraver worked on a square. The blocks were then assembled into a single image.
Hall says this process formed the basis for Leslie's newspaper and was how, she says, “an engraving which might have taken a month for a single wood engraver to complete could be completed in a day by 30 engravers.”
One of Leslie's artists, among the dozen whose works are on display in this exhibit, was Joseph Becker (1841-1910). His collection of nearly 700 drawings by artist-reporters who worked for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper during the Civil War and its aftermath are the basis for this exhibit.
Becker, who started out at Leslie's as an errand boy and ended up manager of the art department for 25 years, once wrote that Frank Leslie was “like a father to me.'' Born in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Becker began working for Leslie in 1859 when he was 18 years old. Although Becker had no formal training in art, Leslie and his staff encouraged him to draw, and by 1863, Leslie dispatched Becker to accompany the Union Army to send back drawings of what he observed.
In addition to major events like the battles of Gettysburg and Petersburg and President Lincoln's address at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Becker recorded scenes of daily life in army camps throughout the eastern theater of war, as well as civilian events. In all, approximately 88 of his wartime drawings were published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper between 1863 and 1865.
One of his drawings on display, “Distributing Thanksgiving Favors to the Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac During the Siege of Petersburg, November 24, 1864” is a real standout, because, Hall says, “Thanksgiving became a official federal holiday in 1863. It had existed, of course, for many years. But during the American Civil War it became a true legal holiday.”
Another artist of considerable note is Henri Lovie (1829-75), who has 20 drawings in the exhibit.
Lovie was born in Berlin, in what was then Prussia, in 1829, but by the 1850s, he had immigrated to this country and had established himself as a successful landscape and portrait artist in Cincinnati before going on assignment for Frank Leslie.
Lovie joined Gen. George McClellan's army in Washington and produced panoramic views of the battle of Philippi and the West Virginia terrain. After the battle, he augmented his drawings by going onto the field to make sketches of battle debris.
Two sketches from his “Adventures of a Special Artist'' series give an idea of the trials and tribulations he and his colleagues endured. In one, he depicts himself wading through chest-high snow after embarking from a steamboat. In the other, he depicts himself precariously walking a plank onto a steamboat.
Like Lovie's work, many of the works on view by the remaining artists have real artistic merit. For example, no artist portrayed life in camp more intimately than Edwin Forbes (1839-95), who often focused on human-interest and figure study.
His sketch “Burnside's Troops Crossing into Virginia” from Oct. 27, 1862, captures the efforts of black soldiers and contrabands (escaped slaves) to build bridges and drive army supply wagons. In this image, a black teamster at the upper left tries to hold the covered wagon back against the force of gravity, which is dragging the horses and their heavy load toward the river.
“When I saw these drawings for the first time, I realized this sense of immediacy and the idea that this was a time when war was actually happening here in America,” Hall says. “People were actually fighting on our own land. And you sort of recognize the homes in the background and the landscape we all see out our windows on road trips. It felt very palpable.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.