Emanuel Leutze’s “Angel on the Battlefield” (1864) in Context


Emanuel Leutze, "Angel on the Battlefield," 1864, oil on  canvas, 32-1/2 x 25 inches

Emanuel Leutze, "Angel on the Battlefield," 1864, oil on canvas, 32-1/2 x 25 inches

Lisa N. Peters

Emanuel Leutze’s Angel on the Battlefield of 1864 was recently returned to the gallery from the exhibition Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era.  Organized by Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, the show was at the Dixon (July 5-October 4, 2009), and then traveled to the Katonah Museum of Art, New York (October 18, 2009-January 24, 2010).  Sharp set the ambitious goal of exploring the pattern of responses to the Civil War by examining the language of the poet Walt Whitman in relationship to American paintings on the subject of the war.  Through Whitman’s writings and through art, Sharp sought the pulse of the nation.  He writes:

In the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Whitman had chided against too much contemplation, introspection, and morbid dwelling on the passage of time. . . .But with the coming of the war, Whitman understood that it was all but impossible not to think nostalgically about the recent past, which for all the rancor and violence of the 1850s now seemed blissful by comparison—or at least free of so much death.  More difficult yet would be to ignore the unrealized futures of so many lost on the fields of battle. (125) 

Within the exhibition, Leutze’s painting, portraying a grisly battlefield over which an angel hovers,  resides within the period of lost optimism at the end of the war.  Yet, instead of depicting the Civil War, Leutze referenced a Revolutionary War battle, as is demonstrated in the red uniforms of British and the blue ones of American soldiers.  A red-coated drummer boy has fallen across a boulder, while his drum has tumbled down the hill.  Sharp suggests two possible reasons for Leutze’s decision to set his scene in the past: either Leutze was “equating the sacrifice of 1776 with the present struggle to preserve the Union that the revolution had waged” or he was raising the question of “what the American Revolution” had been for “if all it led to was fratricidal warfare?”

Emanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art) had also been an allegory; painted during his long years in Germany, this image was intended to encourage the liberal reformers in the Revolutions of 1848 through the example of the American Revolution. Barbara Groseclose, author of Emanuel Leutze, 1816-1868: Freedom Is the Only King (Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, 1975), suggests in a recent essay for the gallery that in Angel on the Battlefield, Leutze (who could have seen the photographs of the Civil War dead by Timothy O’Sullivan [see below] and Mathew Brady) may have “intended to universalize his scene, to evoke . . .the gruesomeness of Civil War but at the same time to embrace notions of War’s carnage anywhere and everywhere.”

Union and Confederate dead, Gettysburg Battlefield, Pa., July 1863. Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 165-SB-36, National Archives

Union and Confederate dead, Gettysburg Battlefield, Pa., July 1863. Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 165-SB-36, National Archives

In the end, Leutze’s painting is distinct in its era; combining a literal view of the war’s horrors in the smoky darkness of the battlefield with the illuminated figure of an angel buoyed by cherubs that comes from religious iconography.  Such paintings as Leutze’s call for the kind of contextualization that Sharp provided, considering how they afford an inroad into the complexity and subtlety of American sensibilities in a way that historical accounts often cannot.

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