Thursday, March 10, 2011

Part 2 of Alfred Waud: Combat artist brought war, postwar South to ordinary Americans

Alfred R. Waud was perhaps the Civil War’s most famous combat artist, a familiar bearded figure on horseback, almost always headed to the Union Army of the Potomac’s front lines.

With derring-do, paper, pencil, charcoal and china white pigment, Waud documented people, places and the realities of war.

Calling Waud prolific is an understatement. He produced thousands of sketches, shipping his work to New York, where magazines, including the venerable Harper’s Weekly, brought the war to the people.

This was before the mass production of photographs.

What Waud saw, Americans saw.

He carried a revolver and was known to fire, occasionally, at Confederate lines.

Less known, but perhaps artistically and journalistically as important, were his postwar trips out west. He documented New Orleans, the Mississippi River, other portions of the South and, even, the Great Chicago Fire.

Waud died in 1891 in Marietta, Ga., while touring and sketching Southern battlefields. He was 62.

Essential reading on Waud includes Frederic E. Ray’s “Alfred R. Waud: Civil War Artist.”

We asked three curators to tell us about the essential Waud (pronounced “WODE”). Please click images to enlarge.

SARA W. DUKE, curator, popular and applied graphic art, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Duke’s first duty at the Library of Congress was cataloguing the more than 1,200 Waud works in the collection.

For her, it’s the reality of the artist’s subjects that make his work special.

“You can really see the faces,” Duke says. “He is capturing the likenesses of people.”

Duke’s comments on Waud bring to mind Robert Capa, the 20th-century war photographer Robert Capa, who said, “If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.”

Waud was usually at the front. One of the sketches in the library’s collection carries drops of blood, when he apparently got nicked.

And he braved sniper’s bullets during the Petersburg siege, climbing a tree to get a drawing of the Confederate lines for Gen. George Meade (left).

“He is positioning himself to see what is happening,” Duke says.

Waud, who sometimes wrote articles to accompany his illustrations, was the only artist to record Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

He and his fellow “Bohemians” were the true visual artists of the time, largely because photographers concentrated on still scenes.

“The dead were not a problem,” Duke says of the lensmen. “War action was impossible.”

Waud is most known for providing sketches for Harper’s Weekly, hugely popular in the North during the Civil War.

Harper’s Weekly, Duke says, was interested in propaganda and wanted the public to think the war was always going well.

The publication took an image of Union soldiers slogging in the snow near Falmouth, Va., (above, the original) and made it cheerier. An 1862 sketch of wounded soldiers being assisted at Antietam was altered to hide the sight of an amputated limb.

“I think he was well liked. The men and the officers respected him,” Duke says of Waud. “To me, it’s his relationship with soldiers.”

Waud depicted African-American soldiers mustering out in 1866 in Little Rock, Ark. They are shown being greeted by family members.

“It [shows them as] empowered, as opposed to liberated,” the curator says.

DANIEL HAMMER, head of reader services, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Hammer is impressed by Waud’s ability to capture more than the immediate subject. The Englishman, he said, had an eye for acute detail.

The Historic News Orleans Collection, which is a museum, archive and publisher, has thousands of works by Waud and his brother, William. That includes Alfred’s early sketchbooks.

Waud traveled to New Orleans to record Reconstruction and returned in 1871 to travel the Mississippi River. He made it as far north as St. Louis, where he was dispatched to the Chicago fire. In 1872, Waud made sketches for "Picturesque America."

In the Civil War, Hammer says, Waud captured scenes quickly.

In New Orleans, “he captures human characters in a cosmopolitan city.”

Waud’s works include market scenes, the opera, bar patrons and, of course, the Mississippi River.

“His energy seemed to match the country he adopted,” said Hammer. “He also was a journalist, not just an artist.”

Hammer also lauds Waud’s accuracy in the scaling of buildings in New Orleans.

“They were meant to depict the scene as it was,” he says of the collection.

HARRY L. KATZ is an independent curator and writer. He is the former head curator in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. He is editor and co-author of “Baseball Americana: Treasures of the Library of Congress” and “Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist.”

Katz ranks Waud second behind Frank Vizetelly as the best Civil War sketch artist, able to get as close as possible to the truth.

“He epitomized the life of a sketch artist. They were photojournalists before they existed,” says Katz. “He was larger than life.”

The well-dressed correspondent was gregarious, a mischief maker and “was quite a character.”

Waud covered virtually every campaign in the Eastern Theater. “He was very brave,” Katz said. (Below, "Advance into the Crater before Petersburg.")

“He was one of the first to recognize that this was about death and dying and destruction.”

“Special artists,” as they were known, sketched their work on paper and had it sent to publishers, where craftsmen made wood block engravings. Sometimes, the emotion of a scene might get lost.

“He had a reputation among his peers,” Katz said of Waud.

The curator has a book coming out next year entitled, “Civil War Sketchbook: Drawings from the Battle Front.” It will include works by Waud, Edwin Forbes, Winslow Homer and artists in the Joseph Becker Collection.

Read Part 1 of our report on Alfred R. Waud

Credits (sequentially): Photograph of Waud, 1864, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpb-03706; "Ammoniacal gas engine, New Orleans streetcar," The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1965.90.51; "In Front of Petersburg, sketch made for Gen. Meade, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-22584; "Winter Campaigning," Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-22444; African-American soldiers mustered out, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-21005; "Noon on Sunday at the French Market N. Orleans", The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1965.13; "Bar of the Natchez," The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1965.90.33; "The Mouth of the Mississippi / a tow approaching the Gulf," The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1965.79; "Advance into the Crater before Petersburg," Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-20996.

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