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October 21, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Leutze Burnside.jpg

General Ambrose Burnside At Antietam
Emanuel Leutze

General Burnside was a man almost completely unprepared for supreme command. It seems he did well with small commands with specific goals, such his Tennessee campaigns and the early battles in the Carolinas. When it came to leading the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War, however, with abstract goals, forward planning, and flexibility he didn’t seem up to the task. He lacked the daring and creativity to pose a match to Robert E. Lee. To his credit, he knew this about himself and tried to avoid it as much as possible. He was loyal and good-hearted who cared about his men. If it wasn’t for his hatred of Gen. Hooker that caused him to take command after McClellan was relieved after Antietam, he might have gone down in history as a decent-enough field commander. His name will always be connected to the disasters at Fredericksburg and the Crater, however. He was removed from command in January 1863 to be replaced by the hated Hooker, who suffered an even worse defeat. This painting seems to be an attempt to reform Burnside’s reputation.

This painting a portrait in the Grand Manner that highlights his best accomplishment (up to that time), and shows him as competent and in control of the situation. Grand Manner portraits are usually full-body or three-quarters full depictions of the subject in their most honorable or proudest moments. In military grand manner, the subject is shown on the battlefield of his greatest victory, usually in full parade dress. These types of works have a strong classical and romantic quality with a severely positive mood. For Burnside, his greatest accomplishment was at the south crossing across the Antietam in September 1862, now called the Battle at Burnside Bridge in his honor. This fight won him the command of the Virginia Theatre.

The General dominates the work, as he should. He is just off-center to the right. He is dressed in a crisp, clean, new uniform, complete with bright gold sash, gauntlets, and sword. He is dismounted so that he figuratively has both feet firmly on the battlefield. He does not look at the viewer, he is, instead, looking off to the left as though he is lost in thought. The viewer is supposed to think he in thinking about strategy or observing the battle that unfolds behind him. While the background is shaded and smoky from battle, the lighting around Burnside is bright. There’s just enough sun breaking through the smoke to shine on his immaculate sash and sword.

His horse stands just behind him obedient, ready to be ridden to wherever the general needs to properly execute his command. This image of horse and rider is a very ancient symbol of leadership, going all the way back to Rome. The dismounted equestrian portrait is a modern translation of that image but carries similar symbolism and allows for more compositional variety. Burnside’s horse anxiously paws at the ground. Its ears are forward and its eye is wide. To me, the animal amplifies the energy of battle but is controlled by the black soldier who holds its reins.

The other two attendants to the right similarly look at Burnside or the battle. I think they help to connect the foreground and background. This isn’t a static portrait; there is a real event happening here that demands urgency but they are patient for the General’s orders. The one mounted attendant in the back looks ready to ride off with instructions to other sectors of the field. I like how the farther away you get from Burnside, the more agitated the humans seem. The two white solders are restless but the black soldier is calm and is able to keep the restless horse under control. He seems just as composed as his commander. The swirling action and energy surround Burnside and affects the scene, but Burnside is an anchor in the storm and his steady calmness is contagious.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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