Monday, April 25, 2016

Huge painting of Gettysburg gets new home, more visitors at Spartanburg, S.C., library

James Walker/Courtesy of Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, S.C.

A massive painting depicting Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg has made a short march in downtown Spartanburg, S.C., to the county library headquarters, where more people will be able to take in all of its exacting detail.

Over the weekend, James Walker’s “The Battle of Gettysburg: Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault, July 3, 1863” was taken out of its frame at the Advance America corporate headquarters and transported a couple blocks to Spartanburg County Public Libraries, where it will be unveiled next month as part of the library headquarters’ new programming spaces.

For 12 years, the painting – a staggering 7 1/2-feet high by 20-feet wide -- was displayed in the corporate lobby, where visitors had to be buzzed in. (Click painting to enlarge)

Philanthropists Susu and George Dean Johnson Jr., who bought the panoramic work in 2003 from a Mobile, Ala., family, were “haunted” by the fact that more Spartanburg residents could not enjoy it, said Lynne Blackman, public relations coordinator for the Johnson Collection. The collection includes more than 1,200 works of fine art relating to the American South.

“The entire purpose is for it to be stewarded and shared,” Blackman told the Picket on Monday.

Blackman said nine professionals carefully moved Walker's titanic creation, not an easy task given its weight -- with frame, an estimated 2,000 pounds. The gilded frame, which features rifles and cannons, was disassembled. An expert checked the integrity of the painting, which was conserved after its purchase.

“It is in excellent shape,” Blackman told the Picket. She likened the move to a “choreographed ballet.”

The painting showing Pickett’s Charge will be on loan to the library system, where about 500,000 annual visitors can see it. County librarian Todd Stephens, in a YouTube video about the move, said the work will be in a recessed upper-floor niche and serve as a fascinating backdrop to lectures, documentary viewings and other programming.

A public unveiling is set for 7 p.m. on May 16.

J.B. Bachelder
The English-born Walker was known for his military art, often large in scale. For Gettysburg, he worked with artist and historian John Badger Bachelder. The oil painting, after it debuted in Boston in 1870, traveled around much of the country, providing education and entertainment in the days before movies.

Johnson Collection curator Erin Corrales-Diaz said patrons would buy an admission ticket and have an opportunity to buy small-scale prints of the painting and a highly detailed key showing key battle figures and moments.

In another video, history Prof. Melissa Walker of Converse College said it is astounding how Walker’s painting captures the landscape at Gettysburg.

“It is a mile of cornfield across which these soldiers were scattered,” she said. “You can really get a sense of the immensity of the battlefield and the horror of what happened there when you stand there on what many people have called consecrated ground. And you get that sense in this painting, as well.”

In a press release about the relocation, officials said the painting will provide a wealth of information about Gettysburg. (While Gen. James Longstreet was born in South Carolina, none of the Palmetto State’s troops took part in this charge, though they were elsewhere in the battle).

"Walker’s grand canvas captures the dramatic conclusion of the three-day battle, which marked a turning point in the war’s tide. Bachelder’s meticulous research and Walker’s precise technical skill combined to produce an epic visual record of the event, including regimental positions, combat vignettes, Union and Confederate soldiers, noble steeds, victory and defeat.

For a painting so huge, visitors will be drawn to details, including advancing and surrendering troops, the wounded and dying, plus various accoutrements, from caps to strewn knapsacks. Veterans would often talk about the painting’s accuracy, officials said.

Lewis Armistead
“The monumentality of the painting allows the viewer to become immersed in the scene, yet the detailed vignettes such as Confederate General Armistead handing an aide his pocket watch to give to Union General (Winfield Scott) Hancock, provide a spotlight focus that makes the painting more tangible and accessible,” Corrales-Diaz said in the statement. Armistead was mortally wounded in the attack.

While Walker’s work is not necessarily Southern, the Johnson Collection has other works, including Henry Mosler’s painting “The Lost Cause,” depicting a sorrowful soldier returning to a deserted log cabin.

The free May 16 program at the library's new Gettysburg Room will include period music and the portrayal of George Pickett, Hancock and two privates, one Federal, the other Rebel. The Johnson Collection website includes an audio overview of the painting.

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