Here are the first six paintings in a series of a dozen 12″ x 24″ portraits from the American Civil War era that I’m working on.
When I decided to embark on a series of portraits from the American Civil War, I really didn’t know that much about the history or the subjects of these paintings. I was drawn to the imagery. I wanted to paint the faces from this era, and I didn’t want to be bogged down by the political implications of the actions of these figures. I wasn’t going to just paint people who were on the politically correct side of the Civil War, or even people who were directly involved in this war. I simply wanted to make paintings of Americans from this time in history. There is something about the expressions on the faces of people from this era; they look angry, sad, scared, and beaten down. They also look resolved.
A lot of this, I realize, is due to the technology of this era. The astounding Mathew Brady took pretty much every portrait that is associated with this time, and I am certain that most–if not all–of the paintings in this series will be based on his work. Daguerreotype photography from this time utilized glass plates instead of film, and cameras relied on long exposures to capture enough light to produce an image. The subjects had to stay completely still for long periods of time, resulting in a portrait that is remarkably sharp yet ghost-like at the same time.
I find these images fascinating. I can’t stop staring at them. I read somewhere that many people from that period considered it impolite to stare at a daguerreotype portrait for long, and that makes perfect sense when I look at that image of General Sherman, or even the portrait of Brady himself. These photographs are unsettling, yet strangely compelling.
I’m not quite sure what the next six will be. I’m picking them out one or two at a time, as I go. I am contemplating painting this Brady portrait of Samuel Morse next, but then again I might have to throw myself in a volcano if I have to paint all the detail in that beard (oh but those medals would be fun). So if anyone out there wants to make a suggestion, I am wide open.
Mathew Brady and Sitting Bull in progress (4/12/12):