Artist: William Morris Hunt
Commentary by Kate LeMay
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
In the 1860s, William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) brought to Boston an emphasis on the Barbizon School, a painting style characterized by an earthy palette, expressive brushwork, and poetic subjectivity. Hunt’s highly expressive interpretations of natural surroundings connected French observation with American emphasis of nature as the channel of virtuous ideals. Although most visible in his landscape paintings, the atmospheric effects of the Barbizon School are also apparent in portraits made by Hunt, like this one of Captain William Madigan.
Hunt moved to Boston from Newport just as the Civil War broke out and he was a vigorous supporter of the Union cause. During and after the war, he painted portraits of veterans from his own social circles. Some portraits were posthumous, such as this one of Madigan, which Hunt painted from a photograph. Madigan served in the Ninth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, also known as the “Irish North,” and was killed on June 27, 1862, during the Battle of Chickahominy in Gaines Mill, Virginia. The Union retreat across the Chickahominy River was a psychological victory for the Confederacy, signaling that for the moment, Richmond was out of danger.
One of seventy-one Union soldiers killed during the battle, Madigan was remembered as “a wit and every inch a gentleman; a brave soldier who perished gallantly…a punster and vocalist; who could tell a pleasing story, or perpetuate a good joke…” Although Madigan was known for his playfulness, Hunt chose to depict him as a serious soldier, the kind of man who would sacrifice his life for a noble cause. His hands are folded neatly at the hilt of his sword and he is wearing the trademark Union Army blue coat. Although he did not win the Military Cross for heroism, he is painted as wearing one, signaling Hunt’s esteem. Gold buttons of the uniform march up his chest, leading the viewer’s eye back to Madigan’s face. Two gold embroidered bars at each shoulder reflect Madigan’s status as a captain. The embroidered decoration on his cap is a horn, the typical emblem used for Union officers, which encircles the number nine, reflecting his infantry unit. The slight bend of his knee indicates that he is a solider standing at rest, but his gaze remains watchful and alert. The idea of the citizen-solider by this time characterized leaders in both armies of the North and South, divided as they were in objective. Each side’s soldiers were devoted to a greater goal than themselves and acted under impartial and impersonal command. Citizenship had become part of the American professional military ethos, and Madigan exemplifies the sacrifice made by citizen-soldiers.
For more on Hunt, see Sally Webster, William Morris Hunt, 1824-1879, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
See Catherine M. Wright, “Battle of Gaines’s Mill,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Edited by Brendan Wolfe. Accessed October 25, 2012. http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gaines_s_Mill_Battle_of>.
See M. PI. Macnamara, The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle, (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1867), 104. Accessed October 25, 2012.
http://www.archive.org/stream/irishninthinbivo00macn/irishninthinbivo00macn_djvu.txt For elegy of Madigan, see pages 63-64.