Saturday, November 8, 2008

Human Decency During War

Nov. 8, 2008
By Michael Aubrecht, The Free Lance-Star

Perhaps the most adverse consequence of any civil war is the division of a population that was once united. Citizens who are born and bred under the same flag, who share the same history and worship the same god, find themselves unable to resolve a political dispute. Debate turns to argument, and the two sides end up destroying each other in the name of their causes. This tragedy of "brother versus brother" was repeatedly played out on battlefields all across America from 1861 to 1865.

Yet when we examine the conflict today, we tend to focus completely on the differences between the Union and Confederate soldiers instead of their commonalities. It's far too easy for us to forget that they were all once part of the same sovereign nation.

Throughout the War Between the States, troops from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line routinely laid down their arms to trade supplies and conversed with the "enemy." Here in Fredericksburg, there are several accounts of weary pickets on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River participating in these temporary truces.

Incidents like these were not at all about military diplomacy. They were about finding a common ground and practicing human decency amid the madness of war. Trading allowed enemies to come together, in peace, between episodes of killing.

The benefits were mutual. Federal troops always had an abundance of coffee and sugar, while Confederate soldiers had a surplus of Southern tobacco. Newspapers were especially popular to exchange, as it was interesting to read the war news from the other's viewpoint.

This sentiment is the backdrop for renowned Civil War artist Mort Künstler's newest snow print, "My Friend, the Enemy." This painting was inspired by a poignant scene in the film "Gods and Generals" and captures Billy Yank and Johnny Reb sharing their meager supplies downriver from the town of Fredericksburg.

The painting depicts two soldiers, one Northern and one Southern, enjoying each other's coffee and tobacco as if the war had stopped, if only for a moment. The skyline of Fredericksburg provides a dramatic backdrop, and the courthouse and church spires are clearly identifiable. Other troops stand among the snow-covered trees in the background, and two subtly rendered soldiers are using a rope to move a hollowed-out log across the river.

As usual, Künstler's composition is remarkable and his brilliant use of line and light draws the viewer's eye around the canvas. The perspective is looking west, just as the battered silhouette of Fredericksburg is being swallowed up by a brilliant sunset.

In a telephone interview, the artist explained the mind-set behind his creation of this contemplative scene. Künstler said: "I have wanted to do a piece that simply focused on the common soldier for a while. I look at myself like a baseball pitcher. When you expect a fastball, they throw you a curve. I had just completed several day scenes that featured prominent military officers in action, and wanted to paint something different."

He added: "This piece was a complete departure from those themes. Here I chose to use a sunset, with subtle movement, and feature 'regular Joes.'"

His studio, Künstler Enterprises Ltd., is in Oyster Bay, N.Y., and he has painted more than 5,000 images throughout his career. Prints of his work are priced from $225 to $3,200, and original paintings command as much as $100,000. This newest painting, like all of his work, required considerable research in order to produce an accurate depiction.

For this pictorial study, the painter traveled to areas on the Rappahannock River that were shallow and fordable. He consulted maps as well as photographs of the city's original buildings and bridge columns. The weather is also an essential ingredient in these scenes, and he noted the placement of the sun to enhance the accurate skyline.

Künstler explained the process. "I always try to visit the exact location, whenever possible," he said. "I do my best to schedule these trips during the same season, and time of the day or night. That way I can see what the sky, trees and lighting was like."

Originality is also a major factor in Künstler's work, and he has been applauded over the years for tackling rarely portrayed subject matter and integrating extremely complex imagery. These include horse-drawn artillery caissons, steam locomotive engines and Victorian streetscapes that appear to leap from the canvas.

"Originality is something that every artist wants to achieve," Künstler said. "Every one of us has an ego to some degree, and I feed it by doing things that no one else has done before." He joked, "When you paint something that no one else has done, it's the best."

This newest piece by Künstler captures a quiet moment that stands in stark contrast to the usual Civil War paintings of Fredericksburg that dominate other period artists' work. Most depict either the disastrous Federal charge at the stone wall, or the ransacking of the shelled-out city.

Local collectors and fans who are familiar with the Künstler catalog may liken this release to another tender moment that the artist chose to capture in his "Angel of Marye's Heights," which depicts Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland giving water to the wounded enemy.

"These kinds of scenes are really special for me to paint," said Künstler, "as they bring the little guy to the forefront. I do enjoy painting the larger-than-life generals and presidents, but it's the regular everyday soldier that is often forgotten."

He added: "The most touching stories from the war are always about the little guys on both sides. I tried to capture their mutual suffering and respect in this piece."

Fredericksburg has always been a favorite backdrop for Künstler, who has painted more than 12 pieces featuring the area. "I absolutely love the town," he confessed. "Every time that I visit, the people are always wonderful, and the rich history that surrounds the city provides all the inspiration a painter could ever need."

The artist will be in Fredericksburg to unveil "My Friend, the Enemy" and sign prints of his painting on Saturday, Nov. 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at VFW Post 3103 at 2701 Princess Anne St.

Sponsor Don McKenzie of King James Galleries said in an e-mail: "We anticipate that much of our inventory of 'My Friend, the Enemy' will sell out prior to the signing. We are recommending that people call and pre-order now. We will then bring the orders to the event for the customers."

Additional Mort Künstler prints, framed and unframed, also will be available. Those interested in reserving a print for the day of the signing may call the gallery at 888/217-1865.

Künstler made a point, in closing, to acknowledge his own excitement about the print and the signing. "I have wanted to paint this scene for a very long time, and now that I have, I am so very thankful that it has been received with such enthusiasm. I can't wait to share it with everyone."

Michael Aubrecht is a Fredericksburg-area author and historian. Visit his Web site at E-mail him in care of gwoolf@freelance

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Knstler, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.