First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection

September 5–December 13, 2009

E-book | Catalogue | Boston Globe Review

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This exhibition displays for the first time more than one hundred thirty-five drawings by Joseph Becker and thirteen of his colleagues, who, during the nineteenth century, served as artist-reporters for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. These Special Artists drew and sent back for publication images of the Civil War, construction of the railroads and transatlantic cable, Chinese in the West, Indian wars, Great Chicago Fire, and other American milestones.

These firsthand drawings—most of which were never published—document key developments in American history as the nation struggled to establish its identity. In the exhibition, they are shown beside artifacts from the Boston Athenaeum and the Wieder Civil War Collection.

The largest group of Civil War era drawings in private hands, the Becker Collection comprises over seven hundred drawings by some of the era’s most notable artists and includes landmark works long thought lost or destroyed. As the United States prepares to observe the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, First Hand adds significantly to the nation’s understanding of its conflicted past. At a time when photography could only depict staged or still moments, the Special Artists recorded live-action historical events in drawings, which could be reproduced as visual documentation in newspapers. These original works of art tell the story of the Civil War as it has never been told before and testify to the contributions Special Artists made to the development of American journalism and the history of American Art.

An accompanying catalogue edited by Judith Bookbinder (Art History, BC) and Sheila Gallagher (Studio Art, BC) includes essays by the editors as well as by Vincent Cannato (History, University of Massachusetts, Boston), Robert Emlen (University Curator, Brown University), Harry Katz (former Curator of Prints and Drawings, Library of Congress), Lucia Knoles (English, Assumption College), James O’Toole (History, BC), Natasha Seaman, (Art History, Rhode Island College), Nirmal Trivedi (English, BC), and James Wallace (English, BC).

Curated by Judith Bookbinder and Sheila Gallagher, First Hand has been organized by the McMullen Museum of Art. The exhibition is underwritten by Boston College with major support from the Patrons of the McMullen Museum. Additional support has been provided by the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts and Tracy Shupp.

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