An essay by Joseph F. Newman ’97 after a visit to Boston College’s McMullen Museum on Thursday, September 24.
My visit to campus to view the Civil War drawings at the McMullen Museum was my first trip to Boston College in several years. Corcoran Commons (unnamed back in the mid-nineties) now hosts a farmer’s market, at least on Thursdays, and driving past it made me wonder whether students these days spend their early evenings julienning fresh vegetables rather than unscrewing jars of Ragu. Also, the university charges for parking now, a nominal amount, but enough to illustrate that I had become an outsider and had to pay for the privilege of visiting a place I once called home. So already I was in a pensive and melancholy mood when I entered Devlin Hall, strode passed the admissions office dotted with wishful faces, and passed through the heavy glass doors of the museum.
A disclaimer: once, for about two weeks, I worked at the McMullen. What at first seemed like an ideal work-study gig soon lost its appeal as shoebox after shoebox of disorganized slides were slid my way with instructions to alphabetize them. The storage closet I sat in was sunless, hot, and smelled of new carpet. Frustrated by the monotony, I convinced myself that I didn’t even really like art, and in a spectacular display of sophomoric irresponsibility, I quit. A week later, I was hustling pasta upstairs in what is now The Loft. I quit that pretty quickly, too. So ended my career in food service, but art wasn’t done with me yet.
After a six-year tour in the rare book business, I am now the director of a major American art gallery where we specialize in the Hudson River School and American Impressionism. The former was first developed by Thomas Cole in the 1820s and, with some variations, spread quickly in popularity. The style hit its peak in the 1860s. Just as we were tearing ourselves apart with grapeshot, building iron-clad vessels to elevate naval warfare to new levels of terror, and fixing bayonets to march grimly into slaughter, we sought also panoramic scenes of our native landscape, enduring visions of God’s majesty, images to assure us that, despite the war, the country (if not the nation) of manifest destiny endured.
I’ve always wondered at this question—how could these artists, almost always young men from northern states, be spared to paint these scenes to fill our parlors and sorrowful hearts? How, when busy painting the national patrimony, were they not inspired to fight for it, or at least lend their talents to record the horror? The names on the walls of First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection are not repeated in the rolls of the National Academy. Or perhaps I’m looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps those artists who stayed north, painting in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks or along the seacoast, or those who went west, who captured the creep of the Platte River, the expanse of the plains, and the glory of California, reminded us that the Union was worth preserving.
So what of Joseph Becker and Henri Lovie and Edwin Forbes and Frank Leslie’s other artist-soldiers who sketched the war? Many excellent reviews of this landmark exhibition have already been written, perhaps none better than Jane Whitehead’s piece in Boston College Magazine. The drawings themselves have been impressively deconstructed and if you go (go), be sure to leave time to read the wall cards. Visitors of museums don’t do this enough. The person behind you could be a curator. If nothing else, you’ll make them feel good.
It was an hour before closing when I walked through the museum. The space was quiet, save for a modern rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic playing softly in the corner. Though at times the arrangement teetered on the bearable side of maudlin, the familiar musical phrases stirred the patriot in me. Lingering over the first group of drawings—epic battle views, an assassination, the hasty graves of Union soldiers with their personal effects scattered about—I thought, here, in these sketches, the grapes of wrath are surely stored. As much as the sprinkling of humorous vignettes of camp life or the self-portraits of the artists mustering out into the field tried to dissipate the effect, it was impossible not to feel that death was everywhere. Unlike Matthew Brady’s Civil War photography, where the starkness of such death is present in the faces and forms of the fallen, these stylized sketches insulate the viewer just enough, enabling one to feel as if the carnage is occurring someplace far away, where sometimes the soldiers are faceless, and are therefore not real, and their deaths are only the deaths of characters in a story.
Everything about America changed afterward. The term “antebellum” came to mean before that war. In the Becker sketches, every shell burst, every pistol shot, every army about to descend upon the field suggests that we were about to destroy the tenuous national foundation that required generations to build. As an art dealer, I am paid to view pictures critically, to view them on the merits of composition and line, or, when the object is of historical importance, to put a value upon its place in history. But the Becker collection overwhelms these critical faculties and I am left with questions about our national identity. I suppose that’s the thing about America—we have dual obsessions to both destroy and venerate the past. And sometimes you pay for what used to be free.
Joseph F. Newman (class of 1997) is the director of the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme, Connecticut.