Art Civil War History

The Politics Of Painting History

Interesting take on Peter Frederick Rothermel’s painting, “Battle Of Gettysburg — Pickett’s Charge,” by New York Times historian Curt Miner.

Writing about Rothermel’s ‘painstaking process’ of interviewing soldiers and officers of the event that essentially altered the course of history, he notes how Rothermel was contracted to do the work for $25,000 in 1866, taking three years to complete the piece that measures 16 feet high and 32 feet wide, and, according to Mark Yost at the W.S.J. ”is the largest depiction of the battle on one canvas.”

It’s quite a stunning piece of history.

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Over the years the piece traveled around the country a bit, even suffering some burns in the Great Chicago fire of 1871 in its historic travels, and was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia before settling in, first, in Harrisburg in 1894, now residing on permanent display at The State Museum Of Pennsylvania.

But no writing, or illustration of history could be achieved without some ruffled feathers.

Even when Rothermel had arrived safely at the truth, political and compositional requirements forced him to bend and stretch. General Meade admitted to not being on the field at the moment depicted in the painting, but Rothermel chose to paint him into the scene anyway. From the artist’s perspective, a painting without the “hero of Gettysburg” – and Pennsylvania’s native son – would have been incomplete. He expected he would be forgiven for compressing time as well as space to include Meade in the left margin.

Rothermel felt less inclined to extend artistic license to John Geary. By all accounts, the commander of the White Star Division served admirably on the third day of the battle, albeit from the vantage point of Culp’s Hill, defending the Union’s right flank. But that fact did little to diminish Geary’s expectations of finding a place on Rothermel’s main canvas. To make matters more precarious for Rothermel, Geary was now governor, the first of four Civil War generals to assume the state’s highest office in the decades immediately following the war.

When it became apparent that he had been omitted from the main canvas, Geary fumed. “He reports himself as having saved the day, and carried the stars and stripes triumphant over that bloody field, and to not appear in Rothermel’s picture, which is to hang under his eyes in the Capitol, is an insult to the State,” one newspaper commented in mock indignation in late 1870.

Rothermel had already designated Geary’s successful repulse of Confederate troops at Culp’s Hill for one of the four smaller companion paintings which were to be executed after the main painting. But if the artist expected that to mollify the sitting governor, it did not have its intended effect. When “Battle of Gettysburg — Pickett’s Charge” debuted in Philadelphia before a packed house at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in December 1870, Governor Geary was not in attendance.

For all the concern over who would be depicted, and how, the painting’s most memorable and remarked-upon figure is entirely allegorical. Occupying the center of the canvas, in large relief, is not an officer or a commander, but a mere private. The federal soldier stands defiantly, legs straddled across a stonewall, arms wielding the butt end a musket, presumably prepared to fight to the death in defense of the Union. The key provided to accompany the painting identifies the figure as “Private Sills,” but no such individual has ever been documented to the battle. Critics later speculated that Sills had been intended to represent an Everyman, the “valor and sacrifices of the common soldier.” In contrast, the officers whose actions Rothermel so painstakingly researched are much smaller, and largely confined to the margins.

The pressure to write, or paint history the way it happens is always a challenge, as history shows– with winners and losers in the powerful hands of its authors.

But there’s got to be a way we can still fingerpaint Reagan into the piece.