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Faces of DiscordThe Civil War Era at the National Portrait Gallery
By Andy National Portrait Gallery
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Andy National Portrait Gallery
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A Question of Union
One of the greatest strengths in the National Portrait Gallery's collections is its portraiture relating to the Civil War. That is as it should be because the Civil War is arguably the most salient event in American history. While so much of this country's early history can be read as preamble to that traumatic rift in national unity, the memory and meaning of the war itself has an impact even today. For evidence of that, one need look only to the South itself, where in recent years controversies have swirled in Columbia, South Carolina, around the tradition of flying the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the state capitol; in Georgia around the adoption of a new state flag that no longer includes the Confederate battle flag in its design; and in the former Confederate capital at Richmond around the dedication of an outdoor sculpture of Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad.
Yet there is a less obvious factor that warrants the Gallery's rich concentration of Civil War imagery: the museum's physical setting. The National Portrait Gallery is housed in a building whose rooms and hallways resonate with Civil War history. Inthe spring of 1861, when the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the Gallery building was home to the U.S. Patent Office, and its exhibit halls, containing case upon case of patent application models, were a major tourist attraction (fig. 2). But those halls soon would be commandeered for war-time uses. Within weeks of Fort Sumter, soldiers from Colonel Ambrose Burnside's First Rhode Island Regiment began settling into makeshift quarters in the building and sleeping in bunks erected between the model cases (fig. 1).
For two extended periods, portions of the building also served as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers, and the poet Walt Whitman was one of the civilian volunteers who went there to minister to their needs (fig. 3). Among the impressions that Whitman carried away from the experience was how odd it was to see these maimed and battered men--many in great pain--against a backdrop of Patent Office cases, "crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine, or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive." He noted, "It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement underfoot."1 This macabre juxtaposition of human creativity and destructiveness later gave way to a more positive mood when the building became the site of a successful fair that raised money for the families of volunteer troops from the District of Columbia. Then, on the evening of March 6, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln--with the Union victory nearly a fait accompli--could be seen at the Patent Office moving among guests at his second inaugural ball. Remarking on this festive scene, in contrast to what he had witnessed in these same Patent Office halls not long before, Whitman once again could not resist the ironic note, observing: "To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying" (fig. 4).2
A revealing quality of the Gallery's Civil War collections is how certain portraits can illuminate the lives of their subjects. Among the most engaging images in that regard are the likenesses of three prominent figures in the pre-war abolitionist movement--William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Garrison's likeness, painted by Nathaniel Jocelyn, was actually the occasion for a bit of high drama involving lookouts and narrow escapes (see page 36). While Garrison posed for Jocelyn in New Haven, Connecticut, in the spring of 1833, the state of Georgia--outraged by his outspoken attacks on slavery--was offering a $5,000 reward for his capture. At the same time, Garrison's strong support of a new school for African American girls in Connecticut had deeply alienated many local residents. Consequently, as he sat for his portrait, friends stood by, ready to fend off a local conspiracy to claim Georgia's handsome bounty. Suspected conspiracies sometimes are more imagined than real, but in this instance the threat was genuine. No sooner was the painting completed than Garrison narrowly missed being legally detained, with an eye to being shipped off to Georgia.
Another salient likeness is of John Brown, that most radical of abolitionists, who would ultimately die at the gallows in 1859 for trying to foment a slave rebellion in Virginia (see page 56). In this photographic image taken by the African American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington, Brown's fiery gaze and militantly stiff pose characterizes the extremism that impelled him to that end. Moreover, all evidence suggests that the image documents a pivotal moment in his radicalization, which gave birth in about 1847 to his earliest thoughts of plotting an armed clandestine attack against slavery in the South. In retrospect, Brown seems to be conveying his desperation and commitment to violence.
Brown's daguerreotype dates from a time when he was still an unrecognized factor in the antislavery movement. By contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrait by Alanson Fisher is celebratory and marks her greatest abolitionist triumph, the publication in 1852 of her best-selling fictional expose of the evils of slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin (see page 52). Painted early the following year to hang in the New York theater where one of the first dramatized versions of her novel was staged, the likeness is on one level a reminder of Stowe's naivete about the financial implications of her success. She would graciously acquiesce to the theater owner's request that she sit for this portrait, but it apparently never crossed her mind to make any effort to reap royalties from the play that she had spawned and that would always be in production somewhere in America until well into the twentieth century. But perhaps the most interesting way to . . .
Excerpted from Faces of Discord by Andy National Portrait Gallery Copyright © 2006 by Andy National Portrait Gallery. Excerpted by permission.
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