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American Military Illustrations Began With Civil War
By Anne Gilbert
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, May 2007
Long before there were American photo journalists covering wars at the scene of battles and showing the grisly pictures, almost as they happened on TV, there were the men known as “ pictorial reporters.” They weren’t the first to depict America’s historical battles with pencil and paper, but the first to do sketches along side the fighting armies. Their role in the history of military illustrations began during the Civil War. It also coincided with the changes in printing techniques.
In actuality there had been little change in printing from the days of the Gutenberg Bible. American illustrations were done by hand. Woodcuts were cut with a gouge and chisel then inked and placed on the paper. Copper engraving was the first improvement that came into use in the late 18th century.
Paul Revere(1735-1818), silversmith, artist and engraver did the first American military engraving to be documented. The hand-tinted copper engraving detailed the Boston Massacre in 1770. One of the many prints made can be seen at the New-York Historical Society.
Though not as well known as Revere, Amos Doolittle(1754-1832) is historically important for his series of four engravings of the battles of Lexington and Concord, drawn by Ralph Bird , engraved and published by Doolittle in 1775. They are hand-tinted and part of the New York Public Library print collection.
The Civil War marked the true beginning of American military art and the growth of important changes in printing processes. There were two publications that the public relied on for news from the battle front; Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and the Harper’s weekly. There were also monthly magazines. Many artists were sent to the battlefields as pictorial reporters, armed with pencils and paper.
While Mathew Brady , was the most famous of the photographers to cover the war, because of the limitations of cameras at the time, his studies were mostly of camp life and the soldiers activities before and after battles.
Winslow Homer(1836-1910) famed these days for his paintings, was a free lance illustrator when the Civil War began. Even though he was a pictorial reporter for a short time he continued to illustrate from his past battlefront experiences.
It was the lesser known artists who shared day to day time with soldiers who actually have left the most accurate records. The brothers William and Alfred R. Waud made thousands of sketches from the beginning to the final battles at Appomattox. Many of them survived and can be seen at the Library of Congress.
There were fewer Confederate pictorial reporters. Conrad Wise Chapman enlisted in a Confederate regiment. When he recovered from wounds at Shiloh, he became a field artist. Though he drew hundreds of sketches depicting the Confederate army in battle situations, only a fraction have been found.
Since the public was eager to see the latest battle illustrations, the sketches had to get to the railroad and transported to the New York publishers. Once there they were worked on by in-house artists, then traced onto a block of boxwood to be engraved.
After the Civil War ended many illustrators painted reminders of past defeats and victories, and set the pattern for future military artists. Considered an expert is Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum(1849-1925). He is known for his authenticity of detail. He wrote and illustrated a book titled “Horse, Foot and Dragoons” published by Harper and Brothers.
There were changes and new developments in printing techniques. The use of half-tones allowed for shadings of gray and black, adding interest to the illustrations.
Photoengraving, which developed from several inventions in photography, was first used to print illustrations in the late 1870s. By the beginning of the 20th century it was used by newspapers and magazines.
During the Spanish American War in 1898, three pictorial reporters would later become famous artists on very different subjects. Frederic Remington(1861-1909) would be remembered for his realistic paintings of the old West. Howard Chandler Christy(1873-1952) created his famous Christy Girl that appeared in various magazines. However what is considered his finest work, “the Signing of the Constitution, can be seen in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. William Glackens(1870-1938) began his career as an artist-reporter for Philadelphia newspapers. McClure’s Magazine sent him to Cuba to do illustrations of the Spanish American War. After the war ended he became reknowned as a painter and one of The Eight, founders of the Ashcan School.
World War 1 saw further changes in military illustrations. Harvey Dunn(1884-1952) was already well known as an illustrator and painter, and teacher when he became an official war artist, with the rank of captain. He carried on the tradition of the early pictorial reporters who lived in the trenches and fought alongside his men. His paintings and drawings are part of the archives of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Another of the “eight” official war artists was George Harding(1882-1959). His art depicted the effect of war on the soldiers. Albin Henning(1886-1943) , one of Harvey Dunn’s students, was also an official war artist who showed action in the battlefield. After the war ended he returned to the battlefields to check out the accuracy of his work. One of his most famous works is “Horse Artillery at Night.” He went on to illustrate for adventure magazines.
World War 11 saw the artists referred to as “artist correspondents. These artists truly brought the horrors of war to the printed page. Kerr Eby(1889-1946) who was a staff sergeant during World War 1, used his sketches in a book on the subject, “War” published in 1936. During World War 11 he landed with the Marines on Tarawa. His works show the realty and brutality of war.
Harold Von Schmidt(1893-1982) did U.S. Navy posters for World War 1. During World War 11 he was an invited artist-correspondent for the U.S. Air Force, European Theatre of Operations and artist-correspondent for King Freatures Syndicate in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.
Anton Otto Fischer(1882-1962) spent eight years at sea that served him well as an illustrator of marine military subjects. In 1942, he was commissioned as lieutenant commander and named Artist Laureat of the Coast Guard. His dramatic series of his experiences on the Coast Guard Cutter , “Campbell” in 1943 led to a series of paintings published by Life Magazine. They can now be seen at the Coast Guard Academy at New London , Connecticut.
Though the techniques of illustrating wars have changed over the years, and photography has replaced the military artist, there will still be artists who once were in military service and remember their experiences, after the fact.
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