Attr. Edwin Forbes
(1839 - 1895)
Edwin Forbes was born in New York City and studied art there immediately prior to the Civil War. (1) In 1859 he studied with Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), a New York City artist and member of the National Academy of Design who specialized in hunting and sporting scenes, some of which were published as lithographs by Currier and Ives. (2) The English-born Tait specialized in hunting and sporting scenes in the British narrative tradition, and Forbes’ earliest work includes animals, genre scenes, and landscapes that follow Tait’s example.
At age 22 in 1861, Forbes joined the ranks of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a reportorial artist. He was one of the youngest artists on Leslie’s staff and one of few to cover almost the entire war. He was attached to the Union Army of the Potomac, which saw service around northern Virginia and Maryland. He depicted many battle scenes, including Gettysburg, but created more images of soldiers’ daily lives. Many of his drawings were quickly published as wood engravings in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, one of the largest and most popular weekly news magazines in the North during the Civil War. Since reportorial artists, by necessity, sent their annotated sketches to their publishers but were not able to review or approve the engraved images, many of which were freely adapted by the engravers, the published images are not the best evidence of Forbes’ artistry. Forbes’ last Civil War subject to be published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was The Bridge over the Mattapony River in the 3 September 1864 issue. (3)
Like Winslow Homer, the best-known Civil War reportorial artist to achieve fame after the war, Forbes later used his wartime drawings to make paintings and prints. According to the art historian who donated this painting to the museum, “Forbes comes off a poor second to Homer, who was the better colorist, the better draftsman and the more creative artist.” (4) Still, Forbes was renowned throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century for his art based on his wartime sketches. (5)
In 1876, Forbes issued a portfolio entitled Life Studies of the Great Army: A Historical Art Work in Copper Plate Etching Containing Forty Plates, which was awarded a gold medal at the Centennial Exposition. (6) In 1886 he executed more than ninety etchings to illustrate a children’s book, General William T. Sherman: His Life and Battles, which was written by his wife, Ida B. Forbes, and about as many for another children’s book, Our Naval Heroes, written by Josephine Pollard. (7) In 1891 he published a series of 300 etchings entitled Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Story of the Great War. (8)
Forbes had more control over the final appearance of his published etchings than he had over the wood engravings in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, so they offer a better example of his artistry. Many of his battlefield sketches now in the collection of the Library of Congress (and illustrated online at www.loc.gov, accessed 29 May 2012) offer ample evidence of his ability to capture the essence of a scene, usually with only graphite and perhaps a little opaque white. Very few oil paintings survive for comparison with the MMFA portrait, and none of those paintings are portraits. (9)
(1) The best biographical source on Forbes is Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Athenaeum (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), vol. 1, p. 388.
(2) For Tait, see Warder H. Cadbury, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks / an account of his career by Warder H. Cadbury, a checklist of his works by Henry F. Marsh (Newark: University of Delaware Press, c1986), a 344 pp. tome with 24 pages of plates (some color) that has not been consulted for this essay.
(3) Jacob Edward Kent Ahrens, “Edwin Forbes,” MA thesis (University of Maryland, 1966), 24. A copy of this thesis is in the MMFA artist file.
(4) Hermann W. Williams, Mirror to the American Past: A Survey of American Genre Painting, 1750-1900 (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 151.
(5) Several illustrations of his paintings and drawings are published in Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Mine Eves Have Seen the Glory: the Civil War in American Art (New York: Orion Books, c.1993), which is in the MMFA library, but none of the illustrated battlefield sketches or the paintings made from them resemble this portrait.
(6) Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Athenaeum (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), cat. no. 229.
(7) Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, cat. no. 228.
(8) Edwin Forbes, Thirty Years After: An Artist’ s Story of the Great War with text and illustrations by Edwin Forbes and introduction by William J. Cooper Jr. (New York: Fords, Howard and Hulbert, c.1890); a copy of the book is in the AUM library. See also William Forrest Dawson, A Civil War Artist at the Front: Edwin Forbes’ Life Studies of the Great Army (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), which is in the MMFA library; none of the images in Dawson are similar to the MMFA portrait. Thomas Truxton Moebs, 82 Original Civil War Drawings by Edwin Forbes (1839-1895): Frank Leslie’s Staff Artist with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia (no place: no publisher, no date), was identified from online records of the Smithsonian libraries but has not been consulted. There may be additional information in the artist files at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and/or National Portrait Gallery, but no attempt has been made to access those. There is no evidence of any archival material related to Forbes in the Archives of American Art. No attempt has been made to consult materials at the Library of Congress related to their collection of Forbes’ art, although 78 items are listed on the LOC website and many are illustrated.
(9) Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, vol. 1, p. 388, cites Contrabands, 1866, in the collection of Hermann Warner Williams; Drummer Boy Cooling His Coffee, c. 1867, Amherst College; A Lull in the Fight, c. 1865, location unknown; and discusses the Athenaeum’s Mess Boy Asleep, cat. no. 229. Ahrens, “Edwin Forbes,” lists paintings in oil on canvas as checklist items 397 through 420, but most titles sound like genre scenes, figure groups, or battlefield scenes. He does list The Cavalryman (no. 404, no date, 14 x 17 inches, location unknown) and The Drummer Boy (no. 405, no date, 14 x 17 inches, location unknown), both of which were offered for sale in 1946 by the Henry Shaw Newman Gallery in New York City.