Scenes of Ourselves

by Beth Cleary

In the painting, old men gather in a dim room. They are close, but look past each other. From the painting’s title we know these men are Civil War veterans, and the painting’s dates are well after the Civil War. Memories of Antietam spans an interior wall the width of a Concord, Massachusetts municipal building, erected in 1851.

Memories of Antietam (detail) by Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts. Oil on canvas, 1911-1924. Town House, Concord, Massachusetts. Photo by Sarah Cleary.

The painter, a woman, wants us to notice the hands and faces of these men. I do notice.  At left, a tall man stares over his fellow veterans’ hats. He holds the upturned barrel of a rifle-musket. At his elbow, another man shoulders in, hand stretched forward as if to say let me through. A man facing him raises his arthritic hands in supplication. In center foreground, a seated man with downcast eyes balances his chin on his thumb. Peering at the hues of black and grey, I realize several men wear their old uniforms. The man balancing his chin is wearing his uniform, and missing his right arm. He sits next to the main event, the man with the map.

Luminous white, rivered and landmarked, the map spills forward toward the viewer so we know what’s taking place. Memories records an actual gathering, and the map’s unfurling; it’s unlikely any of the men have seen it before this day. Civil War maps were singular and crucial, made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in haste so northern generals and field officers would have some sense of where they were in enemy territory. Will the men turn toward the map when it’s open?  Will memories spark and will they speak?

Most of the veterans had been farmers’ sons or unskilled workers — freight handlers, livery workers, shop boys. Some had immigrated to America as children, before the war broke out. Probably many never talked about what they actually saw, having survived. This gathering must have been fraught, the men wary. Reportedly, the painter had a hard time arranging it.

The painter, Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, worked on Memories in the years preceding, including and surpassing World War I. During these years she also produced impressionistic beach scenes and pictures of women sewing. She sold most of these paintings and sent money and supplies to French troops. War, death, unravelling – Memories’s solemn scene suggests all these were on her mind. She had lived in France, could imagine the ruination of known places. In the 1890s, she studied painting at l’Academie Julian in Paris and eventually Florence. The fighting on European soil must have seemed, from afar, like a civil war. I imagine she painted Memories of Antietam from a photograph she took when she got these men together, composing them as best she could given the emotions of the day. Her chiaroscuro rendering of the scene makes for a restless gaze on faces and hands bobbing amidst murky coats and shadows. She wants us to imagine what they do when that map confronts them with their survival.

We can’t know but I imagine their memories: marching for miles in bone-melting southern summers; marveling at wide oaks, native southern conifers, intoxicating blossoms on magnolia trees; cryptic messages run by boys, camp to camp; readying muskets and positioning themselves in flanks, precious cover of growing fields, bullets tearing through high corn hiding places, brothers shouting, hit and falling, blinding cannon smoke, orders to charge or pull back, pull back, pull back, Jesus, pull back.

They might eventually recite names of the dead they did not become. Prominent ones, Colonel George Prescott, Lt. Ezra Ripley. And regular boys they deeply never forgot.

Antietam, 23,000 casualties during the daylight of one day. Antietam, name of a creek, tributary of the Potomac River. Antietam Creek is said to have run red with blood into late September, 1862.

My mother and I would walk to the Town House where this painting hangs to pay the water bill, the taxes, or so she could vote. As a child, I saw the big painting of the old men, taking up an entire wall, and I turned away. Ugly, creepy. Old.

In my 50s, I become interested in this hometown painter, and her monumental mural that scared me. Born in 1871, daughter of a Philadelphia steel baron and New York society mother, “Elsie” Roberts defied her parents’ expectations for society début and marriage. She became a painter, curator and advocate for American artists. She was overlooked as an artist in her lifetime, despite her atelier training and exhibitions in Paris, Chicago, and Philadelphia. She applied and was refused membership in Boston’s Copley Society, founded in 1879 to represent important American artists. She is said to have declared, more than once, “I can paint as well as any man.” Her certainty about her talent, her desire for recognition, and her frustration led her to found the Concord Art Association in 1922. There, she curated important shows with works of major artists, among them Mary Cassatt, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Edmund Tarbell. She showed the work of John Singer Sargent, to whom she is often compared and who enjoyed exuberant recognition in his lifetime. It was Sargent who suggested she paint some figures into the background of Memories, to represent local veterans who hadn’t gathered for her picture.

Elsie moved to Concord in 1900 with her partner Grace Keyes, a golf champion and member of a Revolutionary War-era Concord family. They lived on Estabrook Road near the North Bridge. I used to visit my friend, Carey, on Estabrook Road, in a farmhouse that’s been torn down but that I remember vividly:  iron boot scrapers fastened into granite steps; front hallway staircase leading to a second-floor open balustrade; wrought iron HL hinges on white doors; tall windows with wavy glass. Kitchen with wide windows, where Carey’s mother taught me how to core tomatoes.  Old barn with Carey’s horses.

At the Concord Art Association archives, I stop cold at a picture of the house Elsie and Grace shared on Estabrook Road, the one that’s been torn down. It is Carey’s house. Carey had lived in Elsie’s house. By the time I see this photo I know that in 1927, ordered by a doctor to stop painting as a cure for her “melancholia,” Elsie hung herself off the second floor balustrade of that house … the balustrade I’d run my hand along as I rounded the top of the stairs and padded into Carey’s bedroom. Which was perhaps Elsie’s bedroom or Grace’s study. With a view of the fields sloping down to the North Bridge, where a farmer fired “the shot heard ‘round the world.”

From so many vantage points, and in every generation, there is a view of war.

Memories of Antietam is not called “Veterans of Antietam” or “Concord Veterans.” Elsie had to have known, once she actually gathered the elderly men, that only a few had been in the Antietam fight. Most, as a town historian has discovered, were at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg and other battles. Yet she called this work, twelve years to complete while her own struggles with despondency deepened, Memories of Antietam. Antietam the place, Antietam the battle, stands for the worst that humans do to each other. Despite inaccuracy, Elsie wanted to refer to that. She usually painted women, but she gathered men of her own estranged father’s generation and intimately rendered them – lined faces and speckled beards, thin-skinned knucklebones, spectacles, delicate ears – bidding each one to emerge from the depths. Emerge and then haunt, in the very building that had been a recruiting center for the Union army. Where many of them had walked up the stone steps and joined, fifty years earlier.

Walt Whitman attended maimed and dying Civil War soldiers for three years. I turn to his chronicles to listen deeper to the Memories of Antietam. And listen to Elsie. Whitman declares kinship with all, no matter “sides.” I wish for Whitman’s words to be on broadsheets in the Town House room with Memories of Antietam. Graphic, heartbroken, admiring, and ambivalent, Whitman supplies details that Memories cannot. His “Reconciliation” (1865) speaks at once for all veterans, for Whitman himself, and even for Elsie and her painting:

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,

Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be

utterly lost,

That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly

wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,

I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw

near,

Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the

coffin.

In this still soil’d world, some say we are on the brink of another civil war.  We must not turn away, as I did long ago. Whitman and Elsie testify to “the infinite dead.” We are warned.

 


 

Beth Cleary’s writing appears in Fourth Genre, The Sun, Invisible City and other publications. She holds a PhD in theater from UCBerkeley, and was a professor for 28 years.  She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she co-founded the East Side Freedom Library.

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