The Civil War brought to life by woodcut engravings


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For many today, the photographs by Mathew Brady, Andrew Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan are the defining images of the Civil War: President Abraham Lincoln sitting across a table from Union Gen. George McClellan inside the general's tent near Antietam; three captured Confederate soldiers held on Seminary Ridge shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg; the bloated bodies of dead Union and Confederate troops stacked in trenches or strewn across a field.

But for those living in the North during the 1860s, it was the woodcut engravings that appeared each week in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and its main rival, Harper's Weekly, that brought home the reality of war in a timely and inexpensive fashion.

Illustrated magazines, such as Leslie's and Harper's, sold for as little as a nickel an issue; $2.50 for a yearlong subscription -- putting them within the reach of thousands.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, "publishers, artists and engravers [had] solved the necessary technical problems of mass producing woodcut engravings of hand-drawn illustrations," historian William Fletcher Thompson Jr. wrote in a pioneering study 50 years ago.

It would be much later in the 19th century before the technical problems of reproducing photographs in newspapers and magazines were overcome.

Each woodcut engraving was the product of an elaborate division of labor that could involve 20 or more people. And few were more important in this process than the "special artists" that Leslie's and Harper's hired to live with the Union armies in the field.

These embedded artists, with their sketchbooks and pens in hand, depicted army life, from adrenalin-pumping battle scenes to quiet moments around a campfire. It was their drawings on which the engravings were based.

Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection
 

Where: Frick Art and Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze.

When: Runs through Jan. 12; closed Mondays

Cost: Free

Information: 412-371-0600; www.thefrickpittsburgh.org.

These sketches were often destroyed once the engraving was made. But fortunately, a trove of about 650 drawings was saved by Joseph Becker, who worked for Frank Leslie as a special artist from 1863 until the war's end in 1865. Later, he would travel out West for Leslie's, to cover the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the great Chicago fire of 1871. Becker eventually headed the illustrated newspaper's art department from 1875 until 1900.

The collection remained in the Becker family for years, only to be rediscovered much later by Sheila Gallagher, a great-great-granddaughter of Becker. By a happy coincidence, Ms. Gallagher is also an assistant professor of fine arts at Boston College. In 2009, she selected some of the sketches for a premiere exhibition at the college's McMullen Museum of Art.

"Civil War Era Drawings From the Becker Collection" opened last month at the Frick Art and Historical Center in Point Breeze. The exhibit, which includes 100 drawings by 18 artists who worked for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, will be on display through Jan. 12.

The battlefield artists

When the war began in April 1861, Frank Leslie tried to recruit soldiers to work as artist-reporters for his illustrated newspaper but soon gave up. Instead, he hired civilians -- some with formal artistic training such as Henri Lovie; others, like Becker, with limited skill but with an apparent eagerness to learn.

Winslow Homer, who worked for Harper's, and Thomas Nast, who worked briefly for Leslie's but mostly for Harper's, were among the special artists who would go on to even greater fame in the decades after the Civil War.

The artists were mostly young white men in their 20s or early 30s -- presumably healthy enough to hold up under the rigors of military life. (Gender and race were formidable barriers in 19th-century America.)

But even among the heartiest, life for these artists was never easy.

"I am deranged above the stomach, ragged, unkept, and unshorn and need the co-joined skill and services of the apothecary, the tailor, and the barber, and above all, the attentions of home," Lovie wrote Frank Leslie in April 1862.

Despite Lovie's rather pitiful description of his condition, most of the special artists cultivated a swash-buckling style, "representing themselves in their sketches as inevitably bearded, wearing knee-high boots and a rakishly angled broad-brimmed hat," notes historian Joshua Brown. They began "the romantic image of the war correspondent that, with minor variations" has persisted, Mr. Brown writes.

But if the artists cultivated a dashing image for themselves, it did not extend to their depiction of the war. As the realization set in of a long and costly war, the special artists became more realistic in their depiction of army life, said Sarah Hall, curator of the show at The Frick.

Seldom are the officers and men in the drawings depicted in heroic poses. An exception is Lovie's drawing "Gen. Asboth and Staff on Horseback."

Alexander Sandor Asboth fled to the United States in 1851 following the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Ten years later, he became an American citizen, offering his services to the Union Army shortly after the Civil War began.

In the drawing, Lovie depicts Asboth in the foreground, mounted on a white steed. To the general's left is Asboth's dog York, dutifully looking up at his master as he runs alongside. Adding to the heroic pose, Asboth is wearing a striped cloak, which calls to mind the American flag.

At the other extreme, Edward F. Mullen's drawing, "The Execution of Frank McIlhenney: Deserted to Enemy," depicts the fate of a man who abandoned his country and his comrades.

McIlhenney kneels on his coffin as a firing squad takes aim. Troops, among whom are probably some of his old comrades, are standing at attention to witness this spectacle of military justice, which served as a grim warning to anyone who might be tempted to desert and fight for the South.

From sketch to engraving

One of the great strengths of this exhibit is that it allows the visitor to compare the sketches made by the artists in the field with the engravings that were eventually published in Leslie's.

Artists frequently wrote notes on their drawings to help the engravers. The notes might identify the people depicted ("Gen. Grant and his staff") or identify the names of prominent geographical features in the drawing.

Sometimes, the notes might convey the mood, the artists hoped to evoke. "Make it wild," Lovie wrote on his sketch of the Union bombardment of Fort Henry, a Confederate stronghold on the Tennessee River.

Leslie's editors and engravers, based in New York City, didn't always heed the artists' instructions. They were not above changing or adding characters. In some cases, they altered facial expressions.

Sometimes they would clarify the action depicted in a battle scene to enhance its dramatic impact, Ms. Hall said.

At other times, the editors would simply change the name of the drawing from what the artist recommended. In one sketch, James E. Taylor depicts soldiers raiding a farm in October 1864. Taylor, an army veteran hired by Leslie's, titled the work "Retaliation."

Was the title a reflection of the attitude of the troops he was embedded with? Or was Taylor's intent, as the show's organizers suggest, to make caricatures of the soldiers, "drawing them as tiny figures beating defenseless farm animals in retaliation for a perceived transgression."

But when the woodcut engraving was published it bore the less emotional title, "Foraging Scene," whatever Taylor's intent.

Historians have long recognized that the engravings published in magazines like Leslie's and Harper's were, as one put it, "a record once removed from the eyes of the original artists."

But what about the original artists? To what degree were their drawings "removed" from events they depicted?

Frank Leslie liked to claim that the drawings were based on the special artists' direct observation.

In some cases, this was probably true, especially the drawings of camp life or close-ups of the fighting, when an artist crouched on a ledge or behind a rock sketched tightly focused combat scenes.

But many of the sketches were based on the eyewitness accounts of others that were gathered by the artists after the event.

Edwin Forbes, whose technique is described in the exhibit, often made quick sketches overlooking the battlefield as the fighting raged. Once the fighting was over, he walked over the battlefield, interviewing participants in the aftermath of the fighting for supplemental information.

Mr. Brown, the historian, has compared the special artists to print reporters: These special artists collected information from eyewitnesses and other sources often after the event. But unlike the print reporter, who weaves the information he or she has collected in a narrative story, the special artists translated their information into a drawing.

Becker's focus

Joseph Becker makes a rather late appearance in the exhibit that bears his name. That's not surprising because the drawings are arranged chronologically. Becker didn't join the ranks of Leslie's special artists until 1863, in time to witness the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Becker seems, as Ms. Hall notes, to have been particularly interested in the down time between the battles -- a period that soldiers, then and now, find both relaxing and boring.

He also seems to have taken a special interest in African-Americans who were attached to the Union armies -- at first as teamsters, laborers and cooks. In 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were accepted into the Union army, organized into units commanded by white officers.

This apparently had a major impact on the way African-Americans were depicted in popular newspapers and magazines.

Becker's drawings may have reflected this change, or at least the contradictory ways blacks were depicted as their valor on the battlefield was more widely recognized by Northern whites.

In a drawing titled "Evening Prayer Meeting at City Point during the Siege of Petersburg," Becker doesn't depict blacks in the buffoonish, minstrel-like ways so common at the time. The congregation in this drawing appears to be deep in prayer. The scene is one of quiet reverence and contemplation.

For many today, the photographs by Mathew Brady, Andrew Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan are the defining images of the Civil War: President Abraham Lincoln sitting across a table from Union Gen. George McClellan inside the general's tent near Antietam; three captured Confederate soldiers held on Seminary Ridge shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg; the bloated bodies of dead Union and Confederate troops stacked in trenches or strewn across a field.

But for those living in the North during the 1860s, it was the woodcut engravings that appeared each week in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and its main rival, Harper's Weekly, that brought home the reality of war in a timely and inexpensive fashion.

Illustrated magazines, such as Leslie's and Harper's, sold for as little as a nickel an issue; $2.50 for a yearlong subscription -- putting them within the reach of thousands.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, "publishers, artists and engravers [had] solved the necessary technical problems of mass producing woodcut engravings of hand-drawn illustrations," historian William Fletcher Thompson Jr., wrote in a pioneering study 50 years ago.

It would be much later in the 19th century before the technical problems of reproducing photographs in newspapers and magazines were overcome.

Each woodcut engraving was the product of an elaborate division of labor that could involve 20 or more people. And few were more important in this process than the "special artists" that Leslie's and Harper's hired to live with the Union armies in the field.

These embedded artists, with their sketch books and pens in hand, depicted army life, from adrenalin-pumping battle scenes to quiet moments around a camp fire. It was their drawings on which the engravings were based.

These sketches were often destroyed once the engraving was made. But fortunately, a trove of about 650 drawings was saved by Joseph Becker, who worked for Frank Leslie as a special artist from 1863 until the war's end in 1865. Later, he would travel out West for Leslie's to cover the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the great Chicago fire of 1871. Becker eventually headed the illustrated newspaper's art department from 1875 until 1900.

 


Frank Reeves: freeves@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1565.

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