Saturday, August 25, 2012

Have Easel, Will Travel

What 23-year old could resist the idea of becoming part of something called the bohemian brigade?

Not Edwin Forbes, an artist from New York, who joined a group of reporters known that way and sent to Virginia in 1862 to capture war scenes for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Fact was, cameras couldn’t capture motion, not that it mattered because newspaper presses didn't allow for the publication of photographs, so sketches reigned supreme.

All this I discovered at the Virginia Historical Society when I saw “An Artist’s Story: Civil War Drawings by Edwin Forbes,” an exhibit of more than 120 drawings depicting military life in battle and at rest.

His illustrations, along with those of others in the brigade, were instrumental in shaping the perceptions of an apprehensive public, most of whom never saw a photograph of a battlefield during the entire war years.

 Significantly, they were also the starting point for a book Forbes put together in 1890 called “Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Story of the Great War.” 

I don't care much about battle scenes, but I was fascinated by the drawings of daily life during the war. 

Like “Washing Day: Column on the March” showing soldiers marching with their laundry draped over their rifles air-drying. How else could an infantryman make sure he had dry, clean clothes for the next day?

An Old Campaigner” showed a twenty-something man whose face (and even demeanor) revealed how aging warfare was. Like your typical VCU student, he's a young man but unlike them, he's one who’s survived battles and seen hard service.

Laugh-worthy was “News at the Front” showing a soldier lying against a small foothill at Antietam reading a newspaper. As he takes in the headlines, the enemy’s bullets send bits from nearby rocks flying and kick up the dust all around him. 

But hell, a soldier’s got to read his paper sometime.

Forbes had an affinity for horses, often imbuing them with more personality than the soldiers he sketched.

In one, a personable horse peers around a man as if to say, "Excuse me, what are you doing here?" to the viewer. The man is oblivious.

Before leaving the bohemian brigade in 1864, Forbes documented his own digs in an 1864 drawing called “My Studio.” 

It's a pleasing image of a standard A-frame tent with an army-issue stove, an improvised chair but with an easel front and center.

From what I could tell, it appears to be an ideal setting for an artistic 23-year old to enjoy his time in military bohemia.

I got the sense that it was the adventure of the twenty-something's lifetime and he knew it. 

That's where he had it all over a VCU student.

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