He Paints the Past

‘Most of America’s greatest moments occurred in war,” said James Dietz, a Seattle artist who primarily paints scenes of World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a terrible thought—but for history painters, who look in their art to capture the past, a battle scene makes a better picture dramatically and compositionally than a view of a group of men debating what should be included in the U.S. Constitution.

‘The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air’ (2009), an example of a meticulously researched and depicted historical artwork.

The travels of Lewis and Clark have had their painters, as has the transcontinental railroad and President George Washington doing this and that, but military images tend to dominate American history painting, in large measure because wars represent critical moments when a shift in politics and culture takes place: We throw off the yoke of foreign domination (Revolutionary War); we unite the nation and rid ourselves of slavery (Civil War); we become a world power (World War II); we pay a price for preserving the freedom of others (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). John Paul Strain, a painter in Fort Worth, Texas, who specializes in Civil War images, noted that “people find their values in these historical subjects—being brave in the face of danger, giving all for one’s beliefs.”

Messrs. Dietz and Strain are among the top artists in the field of history painting, a realm that few followers of art know exists. Can you name an art gallery (or modern art museum) in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or some other major city that has a single work in this genre?

Here’s an opportunity to see this kind of artwork. Titled “For Us the Living,” an exhibition of 60-plus paintings by Mort Künstler (b. 1931)—perhaps the dean of history painting—featuring the leading figures and battles of the Civil War is now on display at the Nassau County Museum of Art.

On view, for instance, is a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback, letting his horse drink from a stream while two Southern belles on a bridge ask for his autograph (“The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air”). Another work shows Union Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain directing soldiers to Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg (“Rush to the Summit, Chamberlain at Gettysburg”). Lots of small and large moments from the War Between the States are depicted in these paintings: nurse Clara Barton tending to wounded soldiers; Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson hugging his wife before heading into battle; Gen. Jackson killed at Chancellorsville; Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Inaugural Ball; Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation; the fighting at Lookout Mountain; the fighting at Spotsylvania; Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman calmly riding alongside his soldiers while Atlanta burns in the background.

“Children learn about the Civil War in school, and these paintings make the events real to them,” said Constance Schwartz, former director of the Nassau County Museum, who curated this exhibition.

Being unknown by the larger art public doesn’t mean going unrewarded. Mr. Künstler’s paintings normally range in price from $50,000 to $100,000 each, and at least one has reached $250,000. Limited- edition reproduction prints of these images sell for $225 to $1,000. His art has been exhibited by New York’s Hammer Galleries, and many other collectors (history buffs, historians and ex-soldiers) purchase his works through his website.

Mr. Künstler is widely admired for bringing the past to life and for being a stickler for detail, never putting the wrong button on a uniform or including the wrong regimental flag. “Mort is a terrific researcher and a great draftsman,” said Harold Holzer, the author of numerous books on the Civil War. And James I. Robertson Jr., executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech, noted that “Mort will call me up and say he’s doing an 1862 scene in Winchester [Virginia]: ‘Was there any day in that year that it snowed?’ I have all that information, and I’ll tell him, ‘Yeah, it snowed on Oct. 4, and on Oct. 5 there was still snow on the ground.'” Mr. Künstler has that kind of relationship with a number of historians. (Mr. Robertson noted that he gets paid for his service in artist’s proofs.) Every detail in every painting gets that kind of treatment. Those two autograph seekers on the bridge really were there, because Mr. Künstler read the published account by Lucy Buck, one of the two daughters of William Buck, who named his Virginia home “Bel Air.”

In addition to the paintings, “For Us the Living” includes props (clothing, hats, saddles, uniforms, weapons) that Mr. Künstler used when painting, as well as photographs he or others shot at a particular site, notes he took for specific paintings, and preliminary sketches. “We know he is a great researcher, but I also wanted to show him as an artist and how he works,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Like many other history painters, Mr. Künstler started out as an illustrator and began to specialize in certain subjects. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, “I was doing book jackets and movie posters and illustrations for men’s adventure magazines,” Mr. Künstler said, “and I gained a knack for realism and action and complexity.” He painted a lot of Western scenes—Custer’s Last Stand, for instance—but “the West had been done to death, even if your Custer was the best anyone had ever done. I saw that the Civil War was a subject that hadn’t been done so much, and it was really exciting to me.”

Mr. Grant is the author of “The Business of Being an Artist” (Allworth).

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