The gold standard of Civil War painters

Oct. 11, 2013 @ 11:49 AM

“For Us the Living: the Civil War Art of Mort Künstler,”
N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh, through Jan. 5.

Just down the hall from the gallery of Mort Künstler’s Civil War paintings is an original copy of the 13th Amendment, the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery. One is the perfect accompaniment for the other and visitors to the museum will get a first-rate history lesson about the bloodiest single conflict in all of American history.
The text at the beginning of the exhibition tells us Künstler (b. 1931) is the gold standard for depicting the heroic deeds of the Civil War, from the price of victory to the bone weariness of defeat. This is the artist’s second exhibition at the Museum of History.  The first was in 1995 and he created the painting “Winter Riders” for that show. “Winter Riders” is not here, which is a shame; it marks Yankee troops marching down Fayetteville Street away from the Capitol. Now, 17 years later he is back and has created a second painting with Raleigh’s Capitol, covered in snow, as a backdrop to a scene where a young couple clings to each other one last time before he returns to battle. 
In the wall text, written by the artist, we learn the iron fence which surrounded the Capitol was removed in 1899 and placed at the Raleigh City Cemetery where it stands today. The snow on the ground, the information about the iron fence, the exact detail of the uniform are examples of the meticulous research Künstler does and is one of the secrets of his success as a painter of America’s great historical events.
The show includes 33 original oils of important people and events of the Civil War.  This is in every way Künstler’s show, from the work which is part of his private collection to the wall texts in his own words. Among the portraits is one of Admiral David Farragut, who captured New Orleans in 1862. He is most famous, however, for his proclamation “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead.” As the story goes it happened at the Battle of Mobile Bay when he lashed himself to the rigging of the U.S. Hartford as it was moving through heavily mined waters.
The paintings that have the most to say are those with many characters, carefully detailed uniforms, horse trappings, the conditions of weather and the exact location of the scene, whether in front of a courthouse, a church or a local tavern. An example is “Rendezvous with Destiny,” which is a depiction of a cavalry brigade riding at full pace through a town. The horses sway as they turn a corner; it had rained that morning, a weather fact Kunstler had researched, which gave him a chance to show a clearing sky, water spraying under the feet of the horses and a clear view of the Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg. This scene shows General John Buford’s troops racing through the town to take a position on the high ground and hold it, slowing Lee’s forces down until reinforcements could arrive. It was June 30, 1863.
“High Water Mark” is certainly the star of the show; we are looking south at Cemetery Ridge where we see dozens of figures, cannon, gun fire and men dead and dying. The Union cannon are to the left; the Confederates with their standards flying are moving forward from the right in a suicide attempt to reach the cannon. Straining forward with his back to the viewer is one Confederate soldier wearing an Iron Brigade Hat taken from a fallen Union soldier (another detail which makes these paintings so realistic); men from several North Carolina regiments are also in the painting. Civil War buffs can check this out because Künstler is meticulous in his details of uniforms, buttons, chevrons and other markings.
The artist was here for the opening and personally signed prints of his newest painting, “Capitol Farewell.” We sat in the gallery and talked about the pictures and his future plans; he has announced he will do eight more Civil War paintings and then will move on to other topics. He is particularly interested in focusing on some of the great moments in American history and already has several in mind. When I asked him about the complex paintings with so many figures he said he goes to great pains to make the face of each man different and indeed they are. For the viewer, these men are individuals, not machines, and we see it in their expressions. He said the paintings in the show are all part of his collection and, except for one, are the originals. 
Stonewall Jackson seems to be a featured figure and I asked him about that. He told me Jackson was his favorite and he had learned about the details of his life from James “Bud” Robertson’s biography, “Stonewall Jackson.” Künstler said Jackson was one of the great warriors of all history and he was also a tender loving husband and father. One of the great Civil War figures missing is Grant. He said he had painted Grant many times but all the originals were sold and he decided not to borrow any paintings. He also said he painted scenes that were hopeful, not the terrible scenes of the real horrors of war. Even in “High Water Mark” the men who have fallen in battle speak to the heroism of the moment rather than the horror.
Künstler began his career as an illustrator after studying art at Brooklyn College,
U.C.L.A. and Pratt Institute. In 1982 he was commissioned by CBS-TV to do a painting for the mini-series “The Blue and the Gray,” but it was “The High Water Mark,” created for the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1988, that started him on his concentration of this subject matter. Like many artists before him, Künstler has authorized limited edition prints of many of his paintings; their popularity has made him a household name among Civil War enthusiasts. No question. He is the gold standard of Civil War painters.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.