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What’s So Great About Sneden? Part I

08/23/2010

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

Ever since 1994, when the Virginia Historical Society acquired the four Civil War scrapbook albums of Robert Knox Sneden (containing some 500 watercolor drawings and maps), his name has been spoken here with reverence. In 1997, his five-volume memoirs (containing nearly 5,000 handwritten pages and hundreds more watercolors) were acquired. When the memoirs were published in 2000, they jumped, for a day or so, to the top of the Amazon.com list of best selling books. Worldwide! Why? He was not a great artist, not even a professional painter. Sneden was not trained in the study of anatomy or the use of oil paints. He was an architectural draftsman, who could make renderings of buildings and the landscape, and a Sunday watercolorist. As to his memoirs, there have been other Civil War diaries only recently found. Why so much adulation for Sneden?

"View of the Battle of Savage's Station, Va, Sunday, 29 June 1862" (Virginia Historical Society, Accession no. 1994.80.162.A)

Let’s look first at Sneden the artist, who couldn’t draw the human figure. He didn’t need to; he produced battle art and landscapes. Realism doesn’t work that well for either of those genres. In 1937, when Pablo Picasso wanted to address the atrocity of the Nazi bombing of civilians in Spain, he made Guernica more abstract than real. Sneden didn’t have the skills of Picasso, but he had one enormously important advantage: he was present at the battle scenes he depicted and at most of the settings. He witnessed momentous events when he was imbedded as a mapmaker in an army that was engaged in a major campaign, and when imprisoned in notorious Confederate prison camps. If ever a commentator was in the thick of things, it was Sneden! He gives us the overall impression of what he saw. His skill, in a watercolor like the one shown here, View of the Battle of Savage’s Station, Va., is impressive. We believe him. How many artists in the history of art have depicted a battle so effectively?

Tune in next week for Part II—”Sneden the Writer.”

The Society was able to purchase Sneden’s drawings and diaries with funds provided for the purpose by Floyd and Libby Gottwald, who had the wisdom to see a good thing. The watercolors will appear in a video production that will be presented in An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

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