It is strange to think of Hopper as a historical painter. ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’ doesn’t play nicely with the other historical pictures surrounding it in the Westervelt Warner collection in Tuscaloosa.
Jack Warner refers to Hopper’s collection of toy soldiers as a kid. Indeed, this is what the small ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’ feels like amongst the large, epic depictions of battle lining the walls.
‘I think it’s the most emotional picture he ever painted. And all of his paintings have a hell of a lot of emotion in them.’
Despite its small size, ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’ stands up to its bedfellows in emotional impact.
‘It’s something that people look at,’ says Warner, looking wistful under his US Navy cap, ‘and I’ve seen people damn near cry. Vets, they’ll look at that and see all kinds of things in there. I think it’s the most emotional picture he ever painted. And all of [his paintings] have a hell of a lot of emotion in them.’
Einstein Meets Hopper
Hopper himself relayed a story, told to him by a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, about Albert Einstein’s viewing of ‘Dawn Before Gettysburg’ in a show at MoMA.
‘Einstein in going through the galleries had stopped a long time before this picture of mine,’ Hopper said, ‘and I suppose it was his hatred of war that prompted him to do this as these men were evidently all ready for the slaughter.’
It’s easy to see why this little painting has made such an impact over the years. The colors are breathtaking, in particular the blood red of the dawn sky.
The individual soldiers are just that: individuals. As Warner points out, one has a blister on his foot from marching. Another has just vomited and is leaning on his friend, deathly ill. A standing soldier is getting orders ready, representing duty to his country.
Hopper incorporates a series of metaphors into the picture. The picket fence, perhaps representing Picket’s Charge, each fence top possessing an eerie resemblance to a headstone. The road, whither it leads these men and to what fate? The dawn itself, perhaps their last.
All in all, it does, as Warner says, make Hopper’s other Gettysburg painting, ‘Light Battery at Gettysburg (1940) back in Kansas City, look ‘kind of stiff.’
Friends of Hopper in Tuscaloosa
Down the hallway from the Civil War rooms hang works by Hopper’s artistic compatriots. In the modern art room are pictures by George Luks and Robert Henri, including the spectacular ‘Marjorie in a Yellow Shawl’, a portrait of Henri’s second wife.
There are excellent examples of American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and other greats of the late nineteenth century. Represented are portrait artist John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer, one of Hopper’s most lasting influences and arguably the most important artist in American history.
‘It makes me sad and sick.’
The two other Hopper pictures originally in the Warner Collection, both watercolors, have been divested recently. Warner tells me that the proceeds of their sale may have gone towards the purchase of a Mary Cassatt painting. But he dislikes being reminded of paintings that have been deacquisitioned and will not be pinned down as to details. ‘It makes me sad and sick,’ he says mournfully.
Jack Warner, though, is a man who is quick to move on. As I leave the museum he has struck up a laughing conversation with a new group of visitors. He launches into a story about his three favorite redheads: Washington, Jefferson and Lafayette.
A Collection Remains
Sadly, the sale of pictures from the Westervelt Warner Collection is now a common occurrence. Since my visit, the museum has changed names and locations. It is now the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art. Gone are several spectacular pictures, including one of Warner’s favorites, ‘Progress (The Advance of Civilisation)’ by Asher B. Durand. Pictures from the collection Jack Warner built are being sold by the Westervelt Corporation to raise money, much to his chagrin.
For now, ‘Dawn at Gettysburg’ and many of its Civil War compatriots remain in Tuscaloosa. One wonders for how long.