By Sean Parke
The above painting depicts the top of Evergreen Cemetery as it looked in the summer of 1866. The focus of the painting is clearly the gatehouse of Evergreen Cemetery, one of Cemetery Hill’s most prominent landmarks, and a familiar symbol of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is interesting to note not only what the painting prominently displays, but also what it does not. In the bottom right corner of the panorama is the gate to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Why would the artist not make this historically significant and patriotic setting the focus of the painting or at least one of his other paintings? What message was the artist trying to convey?
This painting was one of many of the Gettysburg area completed by George Leo Frankenstein. Frankenstein (1825-1911) was a native of Germany and a member of a family of artists who emigrated to Ohio in 1831. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and in the years following the war returned to many of the great battlefields to preserve them in watercolor “before any changes in their features had been made.” By his own accounting Frankenstein traveled over 3,000 miles in visiting Vicksburg, Knoxville, Gettysburg, Atlanta, and several Virginia battlefields.
In analyzing this painting, it is important to understand the artistic styles of Frankenstein’s time. In the early-nineteenth century landscape painting became increasingly popular in Europe and this trend slowly made its way into American art. Artwork oftentimes has deeper meanings beyond its aesthetic qualities. American landscape portraits were no different, and were often meant to demonstrate ideals, feelings, or characteristics of the nation. In the years leading up to the Civil War, many landscape painters depicted nature’s wild, even savage, settings to convey the conflict, violence, or ominous future that many feared America would face.
Herein lies one of the interesting aspects of Frankenstein’s painting. This painting is free of conflict or violence and instead appears very peaceful. Historian Steven Conn has argued that much Civil War era art has failed to garner much attention. He blames this in part on the fact that much art from the period couldn’t capture the imagination of its audience and failed to depict the real affects of the war. He described landscape paintings as being “incapable of representing the tremendous impact the Civil War wrought on all aspects of American life.” However, while much Civil War era artwork may not be well known, Conn’s assessment of its shortcomings may be misplaced. If the artwork does not seem to depict the trauma inflicted on the country, then maybe it is wrong to assume that this was the artist’s intent. Instead, could Frankenstein have been trying to demonstrate with this picture that after three years, Gettysburg (or possibly the entire North) had recovered from the war? In his painting, he depicts the sun setting on the great battlefield of the war to remind us of this conflict, suggesting an end to the conflict and resolution. This begs the question: Do southern landscape paintings of the time represent peace, or do they represent destruction?
Now that we have some inclination as to why Frankenstein made this painting, let us try to answer why he used this perspective, especially his decision to keep the focus away from the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Visiting the site today, one concludes that Frankenstein painted the landscape from a point Northeast of the Evergreen Gatehouse (somewhere in the vicinity of Howard’s statue). As the modern photograph below demonstrates, the landscape has changed quite a bit.
Standing at this spot, one wonders what made this perspective special. A first thought is that it may be because it allowed Frankenstein to capture both buildings in one scene. However, if this were the case he could have moved closer and excluded the left side of his painting, much like was done when the modern photographs were taken. Or, he could have taken the picture from further south of this spot, making the Evergreen Gatehouse not only the center of the picture, but also larger, and, therefore, more prominent. So what made this perspective so special to Frankenstein?
Research leads to a few other images that help answer this question. The photograph below is from the Library of Congress and was taken by James Gibson from the top of the Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. In the foreground is the famed tulip tree atop Cemetery Hill, which is also prominently featured in Frankenstein’s painting. This tree – which was hit by lightning in 1876 and removed a decade later – was the site of Pickett’s Union battery during the battle. Confederates under Brigadier General Harry Hays seized several guns of this battery during their attack on the night of July 2nd, 1863.
This image leads one to wonder if the perspective of Frankenstein’s painting may have been intended to appeal to veterans of the battle. Perhaps the artist hoped to remind them of what they saw while they were standing atop Cemetery Hill and, more importantly, to convey that this setting was no longer one of violence. Furthermore, it would make sense that the painting would downplay the importance of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery because it was not a landmark that most soldiers would have remembered. However, the Soldiers’ Cemetery was necessary to include in the landscape, not only because it existed, but because it had become an important memorial to their fallen comrades.
Below is a photograph by William Morris Smith in July of 1865. It is taken from within the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and looks out on to the top of the hill where soldiers also gather. (Note the tulip tree in the right background.) This gathering of soldiers to honor the dead speaks to the growing importance of the national cemetery and, by extension, the spot from which Frankenstein painted this landscape.
In closing, while this painting by Frankenstein has not received much attention, it has great potential for historians. With one painting, we can learn a great deal about the minds of many in the nation that were recovering from the war and looking to put the conflict behind them. In addition, this painting allows us the chance to better understand the significance that these two gatehouses had to veterans of the battle.
To see other Frankenstein paintings of the battlefield, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection.