Welcoming a New Era for the Memorial Military Murals
What’s the largest piece of artwork in the Virginia Historical Society collection? The answer is easy. It’s Charles Hoffbauer’s Memorial Military Murals, known by many by their nickname, “The Four Seasons of the Confederacy.” The French artist Charles Hoffbauer began work on them in 1913, and they’ve been on display in the historic core of our building since 1921. For generations of Richmonders, they have been synonymous with the VHS.
Ever since I’ve been VHS president, the murals have been a stop on any tour of the building that I give. I always used to point to a 12-inch square around the face of a soldier in the center of the Infantry (Spring) mural. That one little square foot, a tiny island amid more than 1,500 square feet of painted surface, had been cleaned to reveal the vibrant colors and subtle details hiding beneath decades of dirt and discoloration. My colleagues and I hoped that some day in the future we might be able to secure funding and complete the Herculean task of cleaning not just a small section but all the murals.
Happily, that day has come. Thanks to a Save America’s Treasures grant awarded by a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service, Department of the Interior as well as hundreds of donors, I’m happy to say that as of Wednesday, May 6, 2015, our restoration of the murals and the gallery that contains them is complete.
Today, when you stand in the lobby of our Boulevard entrance, the mural of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his generals seems to glow. Lee, or really Traveller, looks as if he could step right out of the painting and into the middle of the room, and the moonlight that shines down on John Singleton Mosby seems to shimmer.
It’s been my pleasure during the past four years to watch the conservation of these remarkable paintings and to learn more about the artist and the process by which they were made. Every time I look at these images now, I see new details that were previously obscured. I now realize that what I thought was a rock, or perhaps a pile of equipment, in the lower left-hand corner of the Infantry (Spring) mural was in fact the body of a fallen Union soldier. Another favorite detail is the soldiers in the background of the Lee and His Generals (Summer) mural. Now that they are cleaned, you can see them drinking from their canteens and leaning wearily on their rifles.
In addition to cleaning the murals, part of our Story of Virginia Campaign included restoring the stunning original parquet floor, installing dramatic lighting, and adding interpretive panels that highlight some of the details found in the images.
Come and see for yourself. The murals are now on display Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Let me know what you’ve been able to see in the murals that you hadn’t noticed before.