The American Civil War has been a strong historical interest of mine since I was nine, and while my study has broadened to other time periods, it is still the period in our country's history that I know the best. So many iconic images were produced during that time: particularly photographs, but also engravings of artist scetches published in the newspapers and journals of the day. It is unusual for me to come across images from the Civil War that I haven't seen before, or which brings a fresh perspective on these well chronicled events, but recently I was alerted to an extraordinary collection in the holdings of Boston College that does both.
Sheila Gallagher, an Associate Professor at BC and a longtime friend from down the beach at Wareham, also has the priviledge of curating a collection of artist sketches made by her great, great grandfather Joseph Becker and his colleagues for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. Sheila is Co-Director of The Becker Collection, which includes 650 largely unpublished drawings by these artist reporters that covers an extraordinary scope of subjects over a broad geographic range and timeframe.
The Collection's website includes this biography of Becker:
"Becker’s career at Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper spanned the second half of the nineteenth century. Hired by Frank Leslie as an errand boy at the age of eighteen in 1859, he retired in 1900 after supervising the art department for the last quarter of the century. At 22, he was sent as an artist–reporter to cover the Civil War, and he traveled with the Union Army recording scenes of daily military life as well as the preparation and action of battle. After the war, he traveled throughout the West to draw images for the series “Across the Continent.” It included such diverse subjects as the western landscape, Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and Mormons in Utah. His drawings possess a liveliness and immediacy rarely achieved in contemporary photography and a wealth of information previously unavailable.
However, Becker did not work alone. Frank Leslie sent numerous artists to see and record the facts of the American experience: J.F.E. Hillen, Henri Lovie, Edwin Forbes, Frederic B. Schell, Francis H. Schell, Edward Hall, James E. Taylor, Andrew McCallum, C.E.H. Bonwill, William T. Crane, Arthur Lumley, E.F. Mullen, and others. They all sent drawings back to New York where editors selected images that fit stories, and other artists traced and altered the original work. Most of the drawings never appeared in print. As supervisor of the art department, Becker saved the discarded drawings."
He did a tremendous service by doing so, and Sheila and her colleagues have done us another by conserving and documenting this collection and making it searchable on-line. There are sketches from seventeen states and the District of Columbia, and notably several among those depicting African Americans that manage to transend caricature and show them as part of the fabric of the events. An excellent example can be found here in a sketch entitled "Dedication of a Monument to the memory of the New Hampshire Regiment in the battle of Winchester", recording a ceremony that took place the day after Lee's Surrender at Appomatox. The details in the forground are sharper than the orator standing at the monument, or the hollow shell of the war damaged building in the background. The onlookers include men and women, soldiers and civilians, and a number of African Americans dressed in their best clothes. It rings true, right down to the small dog which alone turns its face fully to the viewer. It also puts those relegated to the back in the forefront.
I highly recommend taking some time to explore The Becker Collection on-line, and look forward to seeing it in exhibition in the near future.