Tuesday, September 25, 2012

1907 Print of the Battle of Hampton Roads

This is a lithograph entitled Last of the Wooden Navy.  Published in 1907 by the Washington, D.C., print shop of A.B. Graham and Company, the work depicts the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8, 1862). It shows the ironclad CSS Virginia engaging the U.S. Navy's wooden warships USS Cumberland (on the left) and USS Congress (on the right).  It currently hangs in HRNM's Civil War gallery, and many other copies of the work survive today at other museums and historical societies.

The print is a copy of a painting by nationally-known artist George Bagby Matthews, who based his work on a sketch by Hardin B. Littlepage, one of Virginia's midshipmen.  Last of the Wooden Navy is among the more accurate depictions of the battle.  Unlike several other prints/paintings of this event, the artist makes no attempt to embellish the basic facts of the battle. Matthews simply shows calm waters, very little wind, Cumberland slowly sinking, and Virginia engaging Congress from the stern while the frigate attempts to escape.  Other artists often showed more action in their works by including more fire and destruction, brisk weather, or, even worse, showing USS Monitor engaging Virginia (that did not happen until the next day).

What also makes this work remarkable is that Matthews is not known for his battle art.  He specialized in portraits, and studied this skill in Paris under the great French portrait artist Carolus Duran.  Several of Matthews' works hang in the U.S. Capitol, including a portrait of Virginia patriot/statesman Patrick Henry and Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones.  Many modern art commentators believe that Matthews' finest work is Lee and His Generals, which depicts General Robert E. Lee and twenty-six Confederate generals.

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