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Keith Rocco’s historical paintings are careful representations of the past, immortalized on canvas.  Rocco has been honing his craft since he was a child and received a book on the Civil War for Christmas.  He spent his youth copying the illustrations out of books and studying history.  Rocco’s paintings are carefully planned out and meticulously executed.  He works with historians and depending on where the event he is painting took place, will reach out to local historians and museums for detailed analysis.  Rocco does as much research as possible before taking brush to canvas and takes great lengths to ensure what he is painting is accurate.

Civil War Artist Keith Rocco

ArtistKeith Rocco

Birthplace: Illinois

Studio:  Shenandoah Valley, VA

Galleries/Museums: “In 1985 Rocco was proclaimed by the French magazine Uniformes, as a ‘artist in the tradition of Remington and Detaille.'” His paintings have been exhibited and commissioned by, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Pentagon, the Atlanta Historical Society, the House of Representatives, Gettysburg National Park, the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the National Guard Heritage Collection, and the U.S. Army War.  He has painted three murals for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison  College, six murals for the Pamplin Historical Park, a centerpiece mural “Gettysburg”, for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and worked on commissions for the University of Illinois Press, University of Georgia Press, Chapel Hill, Military History, American History Illustrated, Napoleon Journal, Soldats Napoleonien, Le Livre Chez Vous and other publications.

Process:  Rocco is a calculated artist who researches and gathers information months in advance of a painting.  He has even been known to think about ideas for years before taking brush to canvas.  Rocco is a purest and his website bio hints at the historical perfection he strives to obtain.  “The small cup of earth on his studio shelf, for instance, was sent to confirm the color of the soil at Jamestown Colonial site,” (Rocco).

Rocco is also a collector of Civil War relics and his peers even comment on his array of Civil War memorabilia as impressive.   When I spoke with Steve Sylvia, President of Civil War Dealers and Collectors Association (CWDCA)  he explained that because Rocco is a collector, he is able to obtain accuracy based on his intimate familiarization with the artifacts of the Civil War.

 Keith Rocco, [is] considered [one of the] top in the world today.  More importantly, he is a collector.  He can offer another angle as a man who knows the details of the artifacts, uniforms, weapons, etc. and the appeal of such items to collectors.  This goes toward accuracy of detail and the reasoning behind that as opposed to say an Impressionistic representation, for example.

The 140th New York on Little Round Top, Artist Keith Rocco

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Gilbert Ouderkirk has made the annual eight-hour pilgrimage from Ontario, Canada to Gettysburg, Pa.  A welcomed face in the Dale Gallon Historical Art Gallery, Ouderkirk made his first trip to Gettysburg years ago with his wife after reading about the Civil War.  Being Canadian, Ouderkirk found the American Civil War fascinating and started ferociously reading accounts of battles, events, and turning-points of the Civil War.

“Mostly I collect the South, I’m not here to say who is right or who is wrong, I’m just here because it was an interesting and in many cases sad war, but very interesting to study.”

General James Longstreet Battle of Antietam, Maryland, 1862 General James Longstreet holding the horses for his staff while they worked Miller’s Battery of the Washington Artillery, September 17, 1862, Sharpsburg, MD. The Commanders Series

Ouderkirk has over a dozen Dale Gallon Commanders Series pieces that he proudly displays in his home.  Among his favorites are anything with Gen. Longstreet and Gen. Lee.  He does have a mixture of Confederate and Union pieces but admits his eye is mostly drawn to the South.

As he toured around the gallery he admitted, “I’m mostly just trying to find room to put these paintings in my house, you can’t just put them in a closet, eh?” he cheerfully said.

He points out the social relevance might be stronger with American’s but admits when he has guests over he always shows them his collection.  “It’s great that you can come here [Gettysburg] and something you tour every time you come well there’s a painting of it,” he said.

His extensive collection usually elicits a, ‘Wow, what’s that all about?’ and ‘What the heck ever got you interested in the Civil War?’  when he has visitors to his house and feels that a picture is worth a thousand words.  “They might not know a lot about the Civil War but when they see a painting, it sticks with them.”

Ouderkirk finds himself stopping at different paintings he has had for years and sees new elements in them each time.  “The paintings are a window to the past.  When you look at it [painting], well there it is and there you are,” he said.

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Mort Kunstler

Mort Künstler is a Civil War artist who is painting well into his eighties from a studio that boasts a backdrop of blue and grey. Located on Long Island, New York the casual visitor might first believe that Künstler is captivated by the sea, but his daughter Jane is quick to point out, “he lives on the water but he doesn’t paint seascapes because he thinks it is really boring, it’s not a challenge.  He loves looking at it but he doesn’t find it a challenge.”

Künstler rises to the challenge, capturing Civil War art and the passion that was evoked in events during the war. True to form, Künstler researches, walks, and talks the Civil War to get a better sense of the ideas, images, and first-hand accounts he is portraying.

Cognizant of painting an aestetically pleasing representation, Künstler’s pieces create a connection between the present day audience and the past faces of the war. “About half of Mort’s collectors are women which is surprising,” Jane comments.

Künstler’s artwork is sought after in the art collectors’ world.  At a recent museum exhibit at Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia visitors not only attended the event but inquired on purchasing the original works. “Three paintings were sold right away and it was the women who were just as, or more so, involved in the decision-making and choosing and interest and enthusiasm of the sale as the husband,” Jane explains.

Artist: Mort Künstler

Studio: Oyster Bay, Long Island New York

Education: Brooklyn College, U.C.L.A. and Pratt Institute

Previous Occupations: Illustrator for magazine copy in New York, National Geographic, Official NASA Space Shuttle Artist, film artist, CBS-TV The Blue and the Gray

Künstler’s objective is to paint paintings that allow the audience to feel as though they were there, in the moment.  His accuracy is noteworthy as is his choice in events to capture.  Künstler also looks for events that are less known but still send a strong message to those viewing the work.

Galleries/Museums: The American Spirit – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, text written by, Henry Steele Commager, Gettysburg National Military Park Museum on July 2, 1988 (125th anniversary of the Civil War), painting, The High Water Mark, Images of the Civil War – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, text written by James McPherson, Gettysburg – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, text written by James McPherson, television show, Images of the Civil War – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler aired on A&E, Nassau County Museum of Art exhibit, The Civil War – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, “Mort Kunstler Day” by Governor James Gilmore in 1999 and 200, Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond exhibit, The Confederate Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, Official Artist of the Ohio State Bicentennial, named official artists for the cinematic creation Gods and Generals, published book Gods and Generals: The Paintings of Mort Künstler, exhibit at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, given the Henry Timrod Southern Culture Award by the M.O.S.B., Jefferson Davis Southern Heritage Award from the Military Order of the Stars recipient.

Process:  Künstler works alongside historians and researches historic events that took place during the Civil War.  His passion for painting historically accurate events of the Civil War really ignited in 1998 after he was commissioned to create a Civil War cover illustration for the CBS-TV program, The Blue and the Gray.  He could paint anything but enjoys the challenge of accuracy and presenting a historical representation of an event.  Künstler relies on historians like Dr. James I. Robertson Jr., alumni and recently retired Professor at Virginia Tech in creating historically representative narrative paintings.

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So What?

The Civil War was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.  Captured through thousands of still photographs, journal entries, sketches, first-hand accounts, oral history, newspaper reports, official reports, declarations, and telegrams, the war takes on a life of its own.  Thousands of reenactors and history buffs take to battlefields to draw connections with the past but this can also be achieved though a painting.

Historically accurate paintings of the Civil War allow for clear visual representation that not only is aesthetically pleasing but also teaches generations about their relatives and fellow countrymen.  The paintings themselves capture a period of time when America was divided, a novel idea to a child growing up in the 21st century.

It is through this art that education spawns.  When a museum, community center, school, or individual takes an interest in preserving the past, generations become educated about their own society and how the actions of the past helped shaped results in the future.   150 years ago, the North and the South fought and killed their geographical neighbors.  150 years later, we as a collective society gaze into the eyes of General Robert E. Lee, General Ulysses S. Grant, confederate and union soldiers and feel a connection.

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Civil War Times magazine has delivered factual Civil War articles to enthusiasts since 1962.  In the December 2010 publication, Civil War Times (CWT) delved into the truth behind Civil War photographs in an article that shows and explains the inaccuracy of pictorial references by one CW photographer.

Thomas C. Roche photographed the aftermath of Fort Mahone April 3, 1865 when Union assaults took Confederate lines down in battle.  “He was eager to document for the first time the Confederate fortifications that had withstood Union attackers for all of 10 months” (Substitute for a Corpse).

The article goes on to note that Roche and his assistant went above and beyond the placing weaponry around deceased bodies but actually added a man into the scene.

Roche wanted a sensational image and told his assistant to ‘play dead’ laying still, faced turned from the lens, next to a Confederate, dead, soldier. The answer lies in an image captured later that same day or the next, after Roche had continued on into Petersburg.  In this photo, captioned by the Library of Congress “Petersburg, Virginia; view in rear of Dunlop’s house, Boiling Brook Street,” we see that our black “corpse” is still very much alive, and wearing the same vest, plaid pants and slouchy boots we saw before (Substitute for a Corpse).

Examine the below photographs all taken by Thomas C. Roche on April 3, 1863 – can you spot the inaccuracies?

Photograph 1:  Depicts dead Rebel soldier in the foreground and rubber pile behind him.  Thomas Roche’s Caption: “A Rebel soldier killed in the Rebel trenches before Petersburgh [sic].  The spots and marks on his face are blood issuing from his mouth and nose.  The wound is in the head, caused by a fragment of shell.”

Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photograph 2:  Here we view the same Rebel soldier but in a closer frame.  We see there has been an addition to the photograph.  His dress informs the photographer that he was an artillery man based on the ‘gunner’s haversack.’  It was his duty to run ammunition from the magazine to the cannons in the front line.  To capture his position, Roche peppered the photograph with a sponge used to tamp down the powder and shell inside the cannon.  This was an addition to inform the viewing audience.

Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photograph 3:  Taken from prospective of pictures 1 and 2, this photograph shows another body next to the artilleryman.  The photograph also shows a horse and carriage (what could have been Roche’s).  The photograph still is focused on the foreground body but hints at action in the background.  Note: the man in the backgrounds face is turned away from the camera and appears to be a black man wearing civilian clothing.
Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photographer Thomas C. Roche Fort Mahone April 3, 1865

Photograph 4:  Petersburg, Virginia. View in rear of Dunlop’s house, Bolling Brook Street

Taken one-two days after April 3, 1865 Fort Mahone photo shoot of death toll and destruction.  The same man who is lying dead in the background is now viewed in an unrelated shot wearing the same clothing.

Thomas C. Roche Petersburg, VA Dunlop's House

Thomas C. Roche Petersburg, VA Dunlop's House

 photograph 5:  Zoomed picture of Man
Photograph of Man

Zoomed picture of Dunlop's House - Man in Question

References:

Civil War Times  Substitute for a Corpse,  David Lowe and Philip Shiman

Photographs:

Library of Congress

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The Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia is celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War with the Civil War works of Mort Künstler.  Booth Western Art Museum focuses on Western American Art and boasts over 120,000 square feet of Civil War art, Presidential portraits and letters, Western movie posters, and Western illustration.

Künstler’s art was well received at the opening on April 2, 2011 with people inquiring on purchasing many of the works.  Künstler’s daughter Jane said she was taken aback by the interest in purchasing an original Künstler Civil War painting and hadn’t even come prepared with prices.  “It’s an exhibit in a museum, I never expected to sell three paints right away,” she said.

The interest in Künstler’s art spans all ages and genders.  Jane points out that 50 percent of Künstler’s audience and costumers are women.  While he believes in capturing the events of the Civil War this hasn’t limited Künstler to strictly battle scenes.  He has done many works that depict the love, emotion, and rejuvenation between the ‘characters’ of the Civil War showing a national audience that these were real people who had real emotional hardships.

For Us the Living: The Civil War in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts

The Booth Western Art Museum is located in Georgia and as a Southern state, some areas of the country are uncertain about celebrating the anniversary of the Civil War.  Yet Künstler’s exhibit show’s both sides of the war and his paintings evoke such powerful feelings that it almost feels as though the Confederate and Union soldiers are used to being displayed together as more of a collective look and feel, versus a segregated distance.  Perhaps this exhibit will elicit the feeling of a United America, turning brother versus brother back to the commonality of fraternity.  For Us the Living, with a name that binds rather than divides, represents 150 years later, the rejoining and strength of our nation.

Mort Künstler’s Civil War Art: For Us the Living
April 2 – September 4, 2011 Special Exhibition Gallery

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How are the works of Mathew Brady relevant to today’s historical renderings of the Civil War? 

It’s true that not all photography accurately captured the action of battle, usually showing the aftermath of a fight was safer, easier, and put less stress on the equipment.  Most of the photographs depict the dead, moved closer to each other to create a visually impactful piece, or enhanced with weaponry, a sought after commodity that wouldn’t be left with the dead.  Yet, Brady captured the faces, uniforms, encampments, and way of life of the soldiers of the Civil War, as an extremely important historical reference.  Painters, historians, movie makers, and the general public understand the way of life during the Civil War because of the painstaking photo documentation of Brady and his team.

How does it relate?

Dale Gallon surrounded by sketches and photographs of the Civil War

Dale Gallon uses photographs as a second source, relying heavily on first hand accounts penned in journal entries, letters, and documents but he then consults photography.  He approaches photos with caution, looking for inaccuracy first and then observing the subtle details, how a uniform wrinkles, how tall the soldiers were, what the horses looked like after being in battle for days.  A photo, as a secondary resource helps provide visual ques that written documents do not contain.  The marriage of first hand accounts and photographic depictions are key in formulating an accurate painting.

The Silver Screen?

Ken Burn’s The Civil War was largely formed around the historical photographs of Mathew Brady.  Ken Burn’s PBS website represents this important photographic documentation with three interactive displays for users.  Visit Images of the Civil War and design your own movie, explore photographs under a lens of discovery, and browse through thousands of images of the Civil War.

Fair Oaks, VA – Lt. Washington, a Confederate Prisoner with Capt. Custer

Archival images played an essential role in the creation of The Civil War. Throughout the film, Ken Burns uses these images to draw us into the story, showing us the people, places and events captured by Civil War photographers’ glass-plate negatives. – Ken Burns The Civil War

Learn more about the process of photography in Brady’s Era from preparing the plate to making the exposure.   Slideshow

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