This fall, the Frick Art & Historical Center
presents Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection at The Frick Art Museum. The exhibition, which opens to the public on November 9, 2013, will remain on view through January 12, 2014. Admission to the exhibition is free.
This fascinating exhibition of more than 100 drawings features work by 18 artists employed by Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper during the Civil War and through the following decade. Some of the first embedded journalists to cover war, these pictorial journalists, called special artists, traveled with the troops and sent notes, sketches and finished drawings from the front to Leslies art department in New York City. For the first time, news from the battlefield and the reality of war reached hundreds of thousands of Americans relatively quickly through Leslies and its competitors.
Frick director Bill Bodine comments, "In recognition of the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Frick is pleased to be able to present this fine selection of original Civil War-era drawings, which provide an intimate look at American life during a volatile decade of war, change and growth. In the 1880s, the Frick family purchased bound volumes of Civil War-era illustrated periodical publications such as Frank Leslies Illustrated News and Harpers Weekly, which are normally found in the library at Clayton. For the duration of this exhibition, these volumes will be on view at The Frick Art Museum."
The Becker Collection is the legacy of Joseph Becker (18411910), art director for Leslies from 18751900. At the time that Becker worked for Leslies the original artists sketches were used as the basis for wood engravings and then discarded. Kept by Becker, this trove of more than 700 drawings was passed down in his family, and given scholarly attention by a team of academics from Boston College including his great-great-granddaughter Sheila Gallagher. The resulting exhibition at the McMullen Museum at Boston College was described by The Boston Globe as a revelation.
Beginning in 1861 with the turbulent war years, Becker and his colleagues created a record of American life during a decade of war. This era saw the rise of weekly topical illustrated magazines and newspapers like Frank Leslies Illustrated News and Harpers Weekly (both found in the collection at Clayton), which were of vital importance to a population trying to stay informed of current happenings and the circumstances of loved ones in the military.
Photography was still a cumbersome undertaking in the 1860s, and could not yet capture action. Consequently, major publications like Leslies and Harpers began mobilizing and recruiting artists as soon as the war broke out. Although an attempt was made to recruit talent from within the army, it soon became clear that even the most gifted draftsman might find the responsibilities of soldier and artist to be in conflict. Most of the special artists selected were men in their twenties, as strength, resilience and good health were necessary for them to endure the rigors of working on location. These artists were the first of their breed. Ultimately their success depended more on their ability to get along with the army and to work under hazardous conditions in the field than on their skill with a pencil and brush, noted historian William Fletcher Thompson, Jr., who also described the thirty-some artist-correspondents who followed the troops into battle as bold but inexperienced. The drawings themselves give an indication of the circumstances of their creationsome are on partial sheets of paper, some are on lined paper, some are in sketchbooks, some are crowded informally onto the page with copious notes recording information to help the engravers. Some drawings are rigid, some nuanced, some have humor, some immerse you in the gore of battle, some are unnervingly picturesqueyet all span the intervening century and a half with the freshness and immediacy of the eyewitness.
Becker began working in New York as an errand boy for Leslies by 1859. Lacking formal training, he was encouraged to develop his artistic skills by Frank Leslie himself, and by 1863 he was dispatched as an artist-reporter. Becker documented major events, including the battles of Gettysburg and Petersburg, as well as everyday activity; approximately 88 of his drawings were published in Leslies between 1863 and 1865. With more than 40 drawings by Becker in the exhibition, the development of his artistic skill is particularly evident, developing from somewhat clumsy sketches made in the first half of the decade, to sensitively rendered landscapes and studies of Chinese railroad workers later in the 1860s. Becker seems to have made a specialty of capturing moments of humanity between the battles, including images of soldiers playing ten pins and doing laundry, as well as distributing goodwill packages for the second national day of Thanksgiving in 1864.
A standout amongst the artists represented in the Becker Collection is Henri Lovie (American, b. Prussia, 18291875). Lovie had established himself as a successful landscape and portrait artist in Cincinnati before going on assignment for Frank Leslie at the start of the war. His drawings are often richly detailed, expressive, full of individualized figures and characterizations, and sometimes, they are simply beautiful, as in General Asboth and Staff on Horseback. After covering the war for two years, Lovie, who was one of the older special artists with a wife and children awaiting his return, resigned from his post in 1863, pleading exhaustion. Lovies skills were sorely missed. In drawings like Squirrel Rifles, depicting a regiments bustling train station farewell to family and sweethearts, Lovies vigorous, realistic detail and characterization capture both specific and universal qualities of wartime departures.
In his Battle of Shiloh, the chaos, drama and frenzy of combat is captured with his distinct vitality and viewpoint. The intensity was already impacting Lovie in April 1862, when he wrote to Frank Leslie, I am deranged about the stomach, ragged, unkempt, and unshorn, and need the cojoined skill and services of the apothecary, the tailor and the barber, and above all the attentions of home ...
The sketches dispatched to Leslies often included notations to aid the artists who would transfer the drawings into wood engravings. On the reverse of his Chattanooga Valley Sketched From Lookout Mountain After Shermans Victory, Frederic Schell (d. 1905) noted: This view comprises the principal portions of the field of the late battle ... The view independent of the association is grand I note the resemblance to an Indian Moccasin from which Moccasin point takes its name. Edwin Forbes (18391895) created a meticulous key to his drawing Skirmish Near Belmontcarefully numbering the points of importance and providing written descriptions on the back of the drawing. The preferences of the artists, however, were not always heeded, and alterations were often made during the wood engraving process, either to clarify action, intensify drama, or in some cases, to diffuse dramaor simply to better fit the editorial content of the newspaper.
These differences make the Becker Collection particularly valuable to Civil War scholars, who now have a new bounty of primary sources to consult. The illustrated newspapers of the time created an important visual record, recognized as such at the time as well as today, yet it was a record once removed from the eyes and hands of the original artist. With 150 years passed and the Civil War no longer in living memory, these drawings give us most of all a sense of the reality of a war that was fought herein our country, near homes and cornfields, farms, towns, and cities that look very much like the American landscape we see today.