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University of Richmond Museums Presents Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection

An exhibition of rarely seen first-hand drawings that document the American Civil War will open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Richmond Museums on January 15, 2011. The exhibition features a total of ninety unique sketches from the Becker Collection with 45 works on view at each venue until April 3, 2011.

The Becker Collection consists of more than 650 original drawings that reside in Boston and is the largest private collection of Civil War drawings, second only in scale to that of the Library of Congress.

Serving as artist-reporters for mid-19th-century America’s leading illustrated periodical, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Joseph Becker and his colleagues met the public appetite for visual images of the unfolding Civil War by sending to the New York journal eyewitness drawings of all facets of military life. Together, they documented nearly every major battle of the Civil War, many in Virginia. At a time when photography could depict only staged or still moments, these so-called Special Artists risked their lives to record live-action events that were then translated into engravings and printed in newspapers.

“The Becker Collection is a national treasure that testifies to the significant role these artists played in the development of American art and journalism,” says Alex Nyerges, Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “This exhibition will be a boon to scholars and the public alike, as it gives viewers the rare chance to see how artists were eye-witnesses to history as it was happening.”

Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection will highlight 90 “on-the-spot” drawings and coincides with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Approximately half of the drawings will be on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and half will be presented at the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art and Print Study Center, University of Richmond.

About the Art
The drawings in the Becker Collection, produced by about 14 known artist-reporters, document soldiers in quieter moments of the conflict: at rest, washing their clothes, foraging for food, celebrating Thanksgiving, butchering and dressing cattle, moving material, buildings levees, and setting up camp. Yet the collection also poignantly records the more frantic and gruesome times: soldiers thrust into the chaos of battle, exhuming bodies from graves, executing deserters, humiliating cowards, and reading last rites to fallen brothers in the midst of carnage.

Joseph Becker and his fellow Special Artists were not simply casual witnesses and recorders of these events, but experienced the anguish and suffering of the Civil War while embedded with the Union Army. Henri Lovie, another artist-reporter, created a series of drawings entitled “Adventures of a Special Artist” that provides an idea of the tribulations he and his colleagues endured. In one drawing he is shown wading through chest-high snow, suggesting the kind of fortitude required by the job.

About the Becker Collection
After the Civil War ended, Joseph Becker managed the art department of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for nearly 25 years. When he left Leslie’s he took with him the nearly 700 original drawings that now form the Becker Collection. Many of these works would have been destroyed after serving their purpose as the basis for engravings published in the paper. Others were never chosen for publication and would have vanished, unrecorded. Instead, they were passed down through Becker’s family for several generations.

The Becker Collection is renowned not solely for its sheer size, but also for its enlightening accuracy. Inevitably, in the process of translating the artists’ drawings to engravings, the original images were changed. These changes were not only technical, but were made in response to the whims of the editors, who wanted to appeal to 100,000-odd weekly readers throughout America. In contrast, the original drawings serve as more accurate and detailed images, ripe with human feeling.

Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection is curated by Judith Bookbinder and Sheila Gallagher and the traveling exhibition is organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, Pasadena, California. Drawings from the Becker Collection premiered at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College in the exhibition First Hand: Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection, which was organized by the McMullen Museum and underwritten by Boston College and Patrons of the McMullen Museum. The exhibition and tour will serve to introduce this important collection to viewers with both an academic and general interest in the Civil War.

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