Mathew Brady and the Modern Union Hero: Rachael Pullin Reviews National Portrait Gallery Exhibition

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Mathew Brady, Robert Anderson, 1861.

Uniform, intimate, and official, the portraits of Civil War generals in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals (March 30, 2012-May 31, 2015), functioned as portable models of masculinity for a republic in the midst of violent self-definition. These twenty palm-sized carte-de-visite style photographs are installed in two orderly rows that flank viewers on each side of a small hallway gallery in the American Origins wing (a hurried visitor may miss the show altogether due to its diminutive scale). Despite the standardized format, individuality abounds. From Brady’s carefully articulated studio settings and proprietary signature to the generals’ unique sartorial interventions, wild mustaches, and heroic posturing, this exhibition highlights new frontiers (and limitations) of early American masculinity both through the commercial endeavors of this photographer and the self-fashioning of Brady’s “captured” Union heroes.

Lauded as the preeminent American photographer in the nineteenth century, Mathew Brady’s (active 1844-1894) corpus provides the most comprehensive visual documentation of the period. Unlike his on-site battleground images, these portraits place their subjects within the highly mediated environment of Brady’s New York studio. Further, they impose a stylistic structure that is based on traditional western painted portraiture and its evolving photographic applications. 

The exhibition’s direct, linear presentation allows for careful study of the formal similarities and divergences in each photograph. Each of the portraits is a modern albumen silver print made from the original glass plate negative held in the museum’s Frederick Hill Meserve Collection. Some negatives have been well preserved and others are scratched, darkened, or faded. Each composition has been modeled on the guidelines set forth in Nathan G. Burgess’ The Photograph Manual, which detailed the positioning of the sitter and their attendant props. They could be seated or standing, photographed in a formal full-length shot or a less formal close-up, and were placed within a staged setting typically accompanied by minimal drawing room articles (tables, chairs, or architectural elements). Robert Anderson (1861), depicts the general standing before a massive fluted column and pedestal, partially obscured by an elegantly draped curtain that is girdled with a rope culminating in two large tassels. Anderson’s contrapposto suggests ease, ability, and confidence. His stance and setting align him with the body of one of the nation’s most formative figures: George Washington in Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait (1796). Rather than a gesture of enlightened leadership, Anderson’s arms are crossed firmly and convey militaristic might. Near the general’s shoes, Brady has emblazoned his name on the base of the sturdy pedestal support; in doing so, he lays claim to the formation of a new visual tradition.

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Gilbert Stuart, Lansdowne Portrait, 1796.

These generals’ portraits were created on the heels of the carte de visite’s explosive emergence a few years earlier. Brady capitalized on this newfound public demand for photographs that could be circulated and possessed as a testament to national allegiance. Newly minted generals flocked to Brady’s studio to obtain a photographic calling card that would publicly attest to their station. Brady, seeking to establish himself in this emerging market, employed the bodies of these generals to make a profit and bolster his own reputation as the photographer of American elites. Both sitter and photographer aimed to cultivate his legacy through the distributable likeness of the modern Union hero.

These photos’ formal uniformity and regimented installation may allude to military order, but they belie the plethora of individualizing touches invoked by photographer and photographed subject. While there is little cultural allowance for visual alterations of masculine appearance, this exhibition shows the generals’ attempts to stoically affect the hero. They alter their body language, facial hair, and the way they wear their uniform. Some clutch swords, hold hats, cross arms defiantly while others humbly fold leather-gloved hands in their laps. In a more formal gesture, others squeeze their hands between tightly fastened jacket buttons. Each of these interventions, to some degree, reflects an identification with former government leaders through the adaptation of the conventions of portraiture and also attempts to construct a new image of the American soldier within the cutting-edge medium of photography.

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Mathew Brady, John Sedgwick, 1862.

One example of such self-styling can be found in the close-up shot of John Sedgwick (1862), who sports an aggressively waxed mustache—the long tips jut out before him like a bull’s horns. This cosmetic feature signifies his masculine prowess. While his facial hair was cultivated to advocate individual expression, Sedgwick respectfully wears his uniform buttoned clear up to his neckline. The general’s steady gaze remains fixed on something outside of the frame. Viewers cannot engage him. He remains trained on his mission (almost spiritually entranced by his sense of duty)—or so he wished to appear. Apparently injured when he chose to sit for the portrait, the white gauzy bandage that binds Sedgwick’s left hand functions as a testament (an intentionally public one) to his sacrifice for his nation. The desire for recognition as a capable and virile individual within the national hierarchy is evident.

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Mathew Brady, Ulysses S. Grant, 1864.

In another close-up, the most apocryphal general, Ulysses S. Grant (1864), appears surprisingly disheveled. His uniform is wrinkled and coat unbuttoned. Viewers can barely glimpse his eyes as they are largely cast in shadow by his prominent and slightly furrowed brow. Grant’s facial hair appears rather unkempt as it ascends unconstrained up to his cheekbones. Where other less successful generals seem to assert a more aggressive attitude, Grant’s extra-diegetic gaze is soft and non-threatening. Grant has been photographed without frills seated before a plain backdrop. The man, himself, becomes the focal point of the image. In a subtly iconoclastic way, Grant breaks out of the cosmetic posturing that the studio environment elicits from the other sitters and appears unencumbered by traditions of masculine vanity. Instead, he creates his own more sensible brand of the American hero.

Curator Ann Shumard has expertly employed the relationship between text and image to add depth to the exhibition’s narrative, which may have otherwise read as a who’s who historical roster. The wall text features not only stories of heroic victory (as one might expect in a government funded museum), but also of hubris and defeat. Viewers read of generals, such as George McClellan, relieved of their command after their failure on the battlefield. Or General Sedgwick, who is said to have exclaimed of the Confederates: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” only to be shot dead directly after his utterance. This subversive narrative juxtaposed with the overtly performed persona of the hero exposes the posturing of early American masculinity through anecdotes ripe with folly and error.  The text does not discount the contributions of these Union soldiers, but adds a layer of humanity scarcely found in militaristic discourse.

In this exhibition, dual portraits of modern American artist and modern American hero emerge in tandem. What is notably missing, however, is a deeper analysis of the work. While portraiture has often been employed to supplement historical anecdotes, such treatment overlooks the artistry of the photographic process. Although small in scale, much like the intimate size of the objects themselves, this exhibition serves as a poignant reminder of the microcosmic manifestations of nation building. Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals delivers another paternalistic vision of American history within the context of the nation’s capital. Yet, it has been curated in a manner that illuminates the vulnerability found between heroic masculine self-fashioning and reality. 

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