Monday, February 13, 2023

Review - " The Antietam Paintings by James Hope " by Gottfried & Gottfried

[The Antietam Paintings by James Hope by Bradley M. Gottfried & Linda I. Gottfried (Author, 2022). Softcover, color art, source list. ISBN:979-8-218-01411-7. $17.95]

Every Antietam reader has encountered the Hope paintings depicting various scenes from the battle. The five panoramic oils on canvas (each five and a half feet in height by twelve feet in width) were completed by the time the 30th anniversary of the battle rolled around and were exhibited in the nation's capital. Preservation proved to be precarious after Hope's death, but the National Park Service was able to purchase the collection in 1979, carefully removing them from an old church building and restoring them. Of the five ["Artillery Hell," "A Fateful Turn," "A Crucial Delay," "Wasted Gallantry," and "The Aftermath at Bloody Lane"], the last was badly damaged during a Hope gallery flood, with only a portion of it surviving to today (but what a portion it is).

Offering a unique new look at the Hope art is Bradley and Linda Gottfried's The Antietam Paintings by James Hope. As noted in the introduction, Hope was Scottish born and made his way to the United States via Canada. A class at the Castleton academy in Vermont (yes Time Chasers fans, that Castleton) led to a blossoming art career, first in teaching then in portraiture. His true artistic passion soon turned to landscapes. This favored direction was interrupted by the Civil War, during which Hope served as a captain in the Second Vermont. Topographical engineering duties performed during the war furthered his skill set in rendering physical landscapes. Resigning from the army in late 1862 due to serious health reasons, Hope returned to his prewar career path, and his portfolio of Civil War artworks eventually covered a number of campaigns and battles in addition to Antietam.

Most of Hope's Antietam paintings are not meant to be snapshots in time but rather a composite of events. For example, "Artillery Hell" depicts three hours of action between 7am and 10am. In order to scrutinize details more closely in the book, each painting is examined in three parts (appropriate to the landscape format: left side, middle, and right side). Reproduced in full color, the sections are annotated, with the painting image on the right-hand page and notes facing it on the left. The lettered sequence of notes describe specific military actions and scenes that are depicted; identify units, individuals, roads, fields, buildings, etc.; and point out both near and distant natural features (ex. woods, mountains, and limestone ledges).

Interesting considerations emerge from this close-up examination. For example, at least two instances are revealed of Hope closely modeling a small area of canvas on a famous Alexander Gardner photographic image. Some oddities pop up, too. One being the inexplicable decision to paint the guns of a Confederate battery in "Artillery Hell" shooting in completely opposite directions, forward toward the enemy and seemingly back toward its own lines. According to the text, veterans lauded the authenticity of the battlescapes Hope painted, though a soldier-critic complained that there were too few bodies down in the fields. One wonders what that fellow thought of the perfectly dressed battle lines, too. There certainly was no holding back when it came to imagery of the slain in Hope's Bloody Lane painting, which is one of the most evocative depictions of a battle's grim aftermath in all of the contemporary Civil War brush art. Though the book does not go into it much, it is noted that Hope's landscape art was profoundly shaped by the Hudson River School (for prime examples, see the artist's Watkins Glen series of paintings), and one can identify elements of that influence in these Civil War paintings as well. For a more telling example, see his Civil War Soldier at Rest.

A welcome break from the norm, this volume is highly recommended for anyone interested in nineteenth-century Civil War art and the Battle of Antietam.

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