By Hayden McDonald ’25
Sitting on the floor of the Civil War Store on Steinwehr Avenue, leaning against a glass case of Gettysburg-themed hoodies and mugs, lies a painting. This painting, framed in a classy wooden mounting, stands out as an oddity when compared with many of the other items for sale around it. In a store chock full of toy muskets, Confederate shot glasses, and Robert E. Lee- themed pocket watches, a painting of this caliber draws some attention. Resting by itself on the floor of the shop, proudly displaying its $45 price tag, it entices any passerby to stop a moment and take a closer look.
The manner in which a work of art depicts war is key to understanding how it is meant to be interpreted. War is, after all, the thing which wears two faces. It is a thing of glory, of heroism, of individual and collective valor. It is unfortunate, but it is necessary, and through war some of the most revered of human traits are brought to the fore. And yet war is hell. It is destruction, devolution, despair borne of deep-seated political, sectional, an ideological divisions. It shatters friendships, families and nations alike, and leaves a smoldering trail in its wake. Clearly, this painting focuses mostly on one of those interpretations: A lone Union man gallantly operates a cannon all by himself against the advancing tides of an unseen foe, his comrades either shot down or having fled from his side. A disabled gun sits helpless in the foreground, serving as a reminder of the dangers of battle. Behind the lone patriot waves the stars and stripes, blurred in the haze of black powder smoke. This artwork celebrates the heroism and gallantry of battle, and of the individual, specifically. The flag in the background reinforces the patriotic zeal that it is designed to evoke. The battle that is taking place could be any during the Civil War, but what matters is the man and the action that is unfolding. It is not necessarily a rare, complicated, or noteworthy piece of fine art, yet it embodies many of the same sentimental war tropes as do many of its more expensive cousins.
The odd placement of the painting within the store thus seems to create a disconnect between the artwork’s subject matter and its display. . One might expect that something of this relative commercial value and subject matter, with its lofty implications about Union, war, and individual valor, would be displayed in a place of prominence and easy viewing–someplace where it could catch the eyes of wandering shoppers and pique their interest, not sitting out of the way on the floor where someone would have to crouch to get a proper view of the art. Why, then, would the shop owners decide to place this painting here? It is clear that this shop does not receive most of its revenue from the sale of paintings; far from it. It is a place to purchase a plastic rifle, or a kepi, or a T-shirt with a witty phrase on it. It is not a place to peruse the visual arts. There are other places to do that in Gettysburg, and the Civil War Shop seems to acknowledge that. However, the inclusion of such a piece in a store like this suggests some attempt to make the shop seem more “official” in its hawking of “history and heritage”-themed souvenirs. After all, there can’t be a Civil War store in Gettysburg that doesn’t have a painting for sale.
In Gettysburg, there has long existed a nearly inseparable, though at times uneasy bond between commercialization and commemoration. This visual tidbit of the (supposedly) “real” war helps to bridge the gap between the shop’s distantly-connected-to-history Gettysburg souvenirs and the heart of what makes the town and battlefield worth visiting and remembering in the first place. It serves as an admission on the part of the shop that perhaps Gettysburg does and should mean more than just lighthearted, collectible memorabilia such as shot glasses and toy guns, and yet the commercial remains inextricably bound up with the commemorative. Indeed, if one looks broadly enough, perhaps a more authentic, however sentimentalized, meaning of Gettysburg can be found anywhere in town, even leaning against a display case on a shop floor.
One thought on “Where a Painting Lies”
This is a very interesting assessment and presentation. There is a lot to think about.