, Newburyport, MA


March 23, 2013

Shribman: Where portraits tell the story


So these portraits, many gathered from the gallery’s permanent collection, aren’t so much a fire bell in the night -- Jefferson’s characterization of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that put off the war for four decades -- as a whisper in the ear. And yet they are jarring to modern Americans trained to think of Civil War generals as dusty busts on a tucked-away shelf. Not so.

Here is Stonewall Jackson, strong and proud, and William Tecumseh Sherman, resolute in Northern eyes, despised in Southern.

Here is Joseph E. Johnston, mysterious and hesitant. He and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, bickered, much the way Abraham Lincoln, president of the much-reduced United States, fought with George B. McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac but was reluctant to use it. These men engage us on the wall even though they did not engage the enemy on the battlefield.

Ulysses Grant did engage the enemy -- Lincoln explained in two words why he favored him: “He fights.” The portrait of him at Vicksburg is not the Grant of legend and lore -- or of the presidency. He was young then (41), with a far-off look, for while victory at Vicksburg was imminent, victory in the war was not.

Perhaps the most striking painting is the heroic Thomas Buchanan Read portrait of Philip Sheridan on horseback, commissioned by the Union League of Philadelphia. This is not classic equestrian portraiture, but a glimpse of the Union general galloping in full fury and urgency on a horse called Rienzi toward the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in October 1864. The painter actually visited Sheridan’s camp to create a work of art that seethes with action.

If it is wartime determination you are seeking, you will do little better than the striking portrait of Dorothea Dix, superintendent of nurses in Washington. She brought comfort to soldiers and set exacting standards: “All nurses are required to be plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop-skirts.”

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