Monday, April 11, 2011



By Doc Lawrence

CARTERSVILLE, GA-The Booth Museum of Western Art has the elegant feel of New York City’s Lincoln Center. Instead of music, there are paintings, carvings and statues galore, displayed in an impressive space that garners well-deserved critical acclaim. It was the perfect place to meet Mort Kunstler, easily the most respected and popular Civil War artist in America. Kunstler, a Brooklyn, New York native who still calls New York state home, has a growing audience due in part to the just-launched Civil War Sesquicentennial, a monumental, multi-state commemorative spanning the next four years.

"War is Hell." Atlanta is destroyed
What makes Kunstler’s works both valuable and popular relates to his remarkable skills as an artist and the high quality of his paintings. First, he would be an acclaimed artist no matter the subject. Technique, accuracy, color, detail are uniformly striking. Romantic or nostalgic scenes, which Kunstler paints to perfection, are notable for a Norman Rockwell-like touch. Created on Kunstler’s canvass, Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman and foot soldiers are credible and all too human.   

Mort Kunstler says he never pretended to be a historian. “I’m an artist,” he told me during lunch in the museum, “and I got into the Civil War as a result of one painting about Gettysburg that became very popular. I found that there is so much about the war that most aren’t aware of and that really prompted me to paint what I found interesting.”

James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of Battle Cry of Freedom praised Kunstler and his works:  “Of all the artists working in the Civil War field, none captures the human element, the aura of leadership, the sense of being there and sharing in the drama, quite like Mort Künstler. He has that enviable talent of being able to re-create history on canvas and to translate events into art.”

You don’t just see a Kunstler Civil War painting, you behold it. Most are powerful and the emotional impact is not predicated on battlefield blood and gore which Kuntler usually avoids. One memorable painting is centered on the casualties from the battle of Frericksburg. A  hospital is so overcrowded that the wounded spill onto the grounds.. While attending to wounded Union soldiers, a young Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, takes time to serve hot broth to a wounded, grateful Confederate soldier. Nearby, poet Walt Whitman is nusing another injured U.S. Army soldier. “Acts of compassion,” says Kunstler, “weren’t uncommon and I like painting them.”  

It would be normal to think you’ve seen some of Mort Kunstler’s works before. Chances are you have. His works are in museums, national parks, bookstores,  galeries, corporate collections and homes coast to coast. To this day, I’ve yet to see wall calendars half as good as those featuring  Kunstler’s paintings. “Three come out every year,” he revealed. “I think they do well.”

Presented to coincide with the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Mort Künstler’s Civil War Art: For Us the Living exhibition at the Booth Museum traces the history of our Nation’s greatest conflict through the paintings of one of America’s greatest historical artists.  The exhibit, which continues through early September, features more than 40 major paintings, plus preliminary sketches, documentary photographs, studio artifacts and other objects Künstler uses to create his masterworks. One painting, “War is Hell,” is in the Booth Museum’s permanent collection. You can almost feel the heat and hear the cries of despair during the burning of Atlanta in 1864.

Mort Kunstler maintains a friendship with Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., Civil War historian and author of Stonewall Jackson—The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Robertson , who has wriiten much of the text in the book collections of Kunstler’s paintings, said that “Mort Künstler is the foremost Civil War artist of our time – if not of all time. To study his paintings, is to simply see history alive.”

The Booth Museum of Western Art is a worthy destination for those who love art and history. It is one of Georgia’s greatest cultural treasures. The family-friendly environment mirrors the easy-going charm of Cartersville, a dynamic city with wonderful restaurants, locally-owned shops, and good sidewalks made for strolling. Just off I-75, the museum is an easy drive from Atlanta or Chattanooga.

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