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Art Review

Life during wartime

In a revelatory exhibit, artist-reporters capture Civil War’s mundanity and horror

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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Reading most accounts of war, you could almost think that it made sense. From historians, we’re liable to learn that these troops led by these generals engaged in these maneuvers with the help of these supply lines, resulting in either victory or defeat.

The facts may be right, but the forced march of the narrative makes war seem implausibly tidy.

Recognizing the lie, artists and novelists have found different ways to suggest the reality of modern war. There are two great models, both dating to Napoleonic times: Goya’s and Stendhal’s.

The approach of Goya, in his great series of etchings, “The Disasters of War,’’ is to thrust us into the sickening heat of war’s atrocities: “Yo lo vi,’’ he wrote in the caption beneath one etching: “I saw it.’’ Or: “Y esto tambien’’ (“And this too’’) and “Ai sucedió’’ (“This is how it happened’’).

Goya’s images have the force of eyewitness accounts (even when they are plainly invented) because he saw war, and his aim was to show us, with maximum immediacy, how awful and insane it is.

Stendhal, meanwhile, in the famous opening to his novel “The Charterhouse of Parma,’’ conveys another aspect of war that is overlooked by official histories. Describing the drawn-out, failed attempts of his hero, Fabrice del Dongo, to join up with Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo, he makes a mockery of the notion of decisive moments, heroic actions, and military grandeur.

Instead, he reminds us, in passages that directly inspired Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,’’ that there is something inevitably - and often comically - anticlimactic about war: the infrequency of action, the long periods of boredom, the arbitrary mobilizations, the toil and deprivation, the camaraderie, the loneliness.

What’s marvelous about the McMullen Museum of Art’s new show, “First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection,’’ is that it somehow combines both these approaches without deliberately setting out to do either.

The exhibition presents us with drawings made by artist-reporters who had no wish to model themselves on either Goya or Stendhal (if they had even heard of them). But simply by being there and doing what they did, they produced unforgettable documents that were also, in many cases, searing works of art: drawings of soldiers killing time, washing their clothes, foraging for food, celebrating Thanksgiving, butchering and dressing cattle, moving materiel, building levees, and setting up camp; but also thrust into the chaos of battle, exhuming bodies from graves, executing deserters, humiliating cowards, and reading last rites to fallen brothers in the midst of all-out carnage.

The show, almost five years in the making, is a revelation - for me the most engrossing exhibition in Boston so far this fall. The 120-odd drawings in it have been selected from the Becker Collection, a private cache of nearly 700 drawings by artist-reporters who worked for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the Civil War and its aftermath. (They have been complemented by a discerning selection of Civil War memorabilia such as military outfits, flags, personal effects, and weapons.)

Life for these “Special Artists,’’ who were “embedded’’ with Union troops in a practice that was at the time unprecedented, was no picnic. Special Artist Francis “Frank’’ Schell, for instance, was seen by one major “sitting on a log sketching under the hottest fire from Fort Defiance. His nonchalance and coolness,’’ the major continued, in a letter written to Schell’s boss, Leslie, “did as much toward inspiring our troops as the enthusiasm and bravery of any of the officers.’’

Another artist, the brilliant Henri Lovie, who has 20 drawings in the show, was mistaken for an enemy scout by Union sentries. They fired upon him but missed.

Lovie made a series of drawings called “Adventures of a Special Artist’’ that gives an idea of the tribulations he and his colleagues endured. One, included in the exhibit, shows him wading through chest-high snow after embarking from a steamboat. It suggests a certain stiff-jawed fortitude that almost makes you want to join the cause.

But then you read the letter that Lovie wrote in 1862, in which he described “riding from 10 to 15 miles daily, through mud and underbrush, and then working until midnight by the dim light of an attenuated tallow dip’’ while feeling “deranged about the stomach, ragged, unkempt and unshorn,’’ yearning above all for “the attentions of home and the cheerful prattle of children.’’

One of the Special Artists was Joseph Becker, who started out at Leslie’s as an errand boy and ended up manager of the art department for 25 years. According to Becker, writing in 1905, Frank Leslie was “like a father to me.’’ He “studied the taste of the public,’’ and his motto was “Never shoot over the heads of the people.’’

When Leslie, who was himself an experienced engraver, sent Becker out into the field as a Special Artist, he said: “Joseph, I don’t expect to ever see you alive again.’’

Becker ended up witnessing, he wrote, “all the important battles in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox. I accompanied the armies of the Potomac and the James in their marches and engagements. . . . I got acquainted with all the leading generals from Grant down and hundreds of stirring incidents came to my notice. I was in at Lee’s surrender,’’ and so on.

Becker was no Goya. His drawings, while never lacking in interest, can be somewhat stiff and schematic. He was, finally, a company man. But crucially, when he did leave Leslie’s, he took with him the nearly 700 original drawings that now form the Becker Collection. They have never previously been exhibited, and not been much studied.

Given academic and popular interest in the Civil War, that might sound surprising - and it will seem even more so after you’ve seen these images. (Part of the purpose of the McMullen exhibition, which comes with a fine catalog, has been to kick-start research.) But the reality is that when historians of the Civil War have looked at images, they have tended to focus on published illustrations.

None of the drawings by the Special Artists who worked for Leslie’s was published: The technology to reproduce drawings directly did not exist. Rather, some of the drawings that were sent back to Leslie’s were converted into composite images by teams of specialist engravers.

Inevitably, in the process of translation from drawing to engraving, the original images were changed - not just in a technical sense, but in direct response to the whims of the engravers, who themselves had to respond to the whims of editors; the editors were at the mercy of Leslie, who in turn had to anticipate the wants and biases of his 100,000-odd weekly readers.

Thus, one part of this exhibition, which pulls off the feat of being hugely enlightening without ever feeling didactic, is given over to a comparison of the original drawings with the engravings that were eventually published in Leslie’s. The difference - between the directness and intimacy of the drawings and the more ceremonial and tendentious public face of the engravings - is impossible to miss. (A lovely section at the end of the show, replete with upholstered armchairs and a reading lamp, hangs old copies of Leslie’s on newspaper racks, allowing you to get a feel for the publication in homely environs.)

All told, around 3,000 illustrations of the Civil War appeared in Leslie’s and elsewhere in print. But as Judith Bookbinder, who organized the show with Sheila Gallagher, explains in a catalog essay, this represents only a fraction of the drawings that were made in the field.

Some of those drawings are little more than diagrams - attempts at sketching out the topography and arrayed forces in a given battle; they come with written notations to clarify things for the engravers.

But many have real artistic merit. You can’t help but admire, for instance, the subtlety of observation and the variety of hatched pencil marks in Charles Soule Jr.’s “Camp Sherman’’ or Frederic Schell’s “Siege of Vicksburg: Soldiers at Work on the Fortifications.’’

Schell’s “Chattanooga Valley Sketched from Lookout Mountain after Sherman’s Victory’’ is a rare rendering in ink wash. It shows the battlefield from atop the mountain, the haze of the day obliterating almost all signs of the massacre that had just taken place.

War takes place, a work like this reminds us - and then it is over, just like the unlucky lives it sucks into its thumping madness.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the exhibition "First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection” at the McMullen Museum of Art that appeared in the "G" section on Oct. 2 incorrectly identified the setting of actions in Stendhal's novel "The Charterhouse of Parma." The setting was the Battle of Waterloo.

FIRST HAND: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection At: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, through

Dec. 13. 617-552-8100, www.bc.edu/artmuseum

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