News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Walt Whitman and war on display at Richmond museum
By SHEILA WICKOUSKI
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
“Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts juxtaposes 30 paintings and other works from the 1860s with words from the writer’s poetry in a stunning visual and verbal presentation of the great American conflict.
Portraits—painted biographies—put a face on the war, and are key in understanding the emotions of another time.
There is 19th-century sentimentality of course, most tenderly shown in George Cochran Lamdin’s “In Beach Wood” in which a boy carves initials on a tree as his sweetheart looks on.
Tragedy is a constant theme in works like Junius Brutus Stearns’ “The Letter,” which depicts a Southern family receiving the dreaded letter with a black seal, informing of a loved one’s death and William D. Washington’s “The Burial of William Latane.”
Most interesting are paintings of fugitive slaves, notably Eastman Johnson’s “A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862” as well as Thomas Satterwhite Nobles’ “Fugitives in Flight” (1869). In both, the facial features are hidden.
Also set in semi-darkness is “Thoughts on Liberia, Emancipation, 1861,” by Edwin D. White, which shows a black man, sitting before a fireplace, thinking of what freedom means to others, since he is already a freed man.
In contrast, John Quincy Adams Ward’s bronze “The Freedman” depicts a freed slave, his broken manacle hanging from his wrist, a face as noble as classical Greek or Renaissance sculpture.
The Civil War is often cited as a war of brother against brother, and one painting is particularly curious. Nobles’ “The Price of Blood” (1868) is a group portrait of three men: a slave holder, his slave son and the slave trader. Each face a study in itself.
Landscapes were, prior to the Civil War, one of the most popular form of paintings.
David Johnson’s “Natural Bridge” (1860) is a fine example of a work that shows the huge formation towering over onlookers. The work is not just an exercise in pleasant scenery, but also a symbol of Virginia, as a “bridge” between North and South in the looming crisis. Man is small compared with geographic wonder and with the events of history.
Alfred T. Britcher, whose brother died at Spotsylvania Court House, created a major landscape that conveys the tensions of the time, in “Twilight in the Wilderness, 1865.”
It’s best to forget categories like portrait or landscape when viewing this show. Works like Henry Mosler’s “The Lost Cause,” in which a soldier returning from the war stands in front of a ruined cabin with a background of distant mountains, merge the two genres.
As someone commented, “the landscape had become a battlefield.”
Fredericksburg played a key role in how Walt Whitman, one of the chief scribes of the Civil War, came to write the poem “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Wood.”
The grave he came upon is marked “Bold Cautious and True,” the underlying theme of the exhibit.
Whitman had came here to find a brother who been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
His first close-up of the conflict was to dominate his poetry. He went on to nurse the war wounded, and his brother continued to fight in later battles at Wilderness and Spotsylvania.
To know about the war is not to only visit battle sites but should include a visit to the VMFA for this exhibit, which shows the faces and feelings in visual works of the time.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era”
Where: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond
When: Through Aug. 26
Cost: Admission to permanent collections is free.
Info: 804/340-1400; vmfa.museum
Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance–Star.