Hoffbauer’s Confederate Murals Reveal Secrets During Restoration
By Scott C. Boyd
(May 2013 Civil War News)
Hoffbauer’s “Spring” mural shows Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, right, reviewing his troops in the Shenandoah Valley. The upbeat mood reflects the Confederacy’s early military successes. (Virgnia Historical Society)
RICHMOND, Va. – New details not seen for decades have been uncovered during the three-year, $870,000 project to clean the huge Virginia Historical Society (VHS) murals by Charles Hoffbauer depicting the rise and fall of the Confederacy.
June 1 will mark the second year of the three-year project.
In the spring of 2011, the VHS received a $375,000 Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
The VHS must raise $381,000 in matching funds, and is still working on that, according to VHS Senior Officer for Public Relations and Marketing, Jennifer M. Guild.
Hoffbauer (1875-1957) began work on the murals in 1913, then returned to his native France in 1914 to fight in World War I. He completed them in 1920 after returning to America following the war. They have been on display since 1921.
The murals were commissioned by the Richmond-based Confederate Memorial Association (CMA), which merged with the VHS in 1946.
Four large murals depict the four seasons as an analogy of the rise and fall of the Confederacy. Two are 26 x 14 feet (Spring and Autumn); the other two are even larger at 36 x 14 feet (Summer and Winter).
Four flanking panels with special themes are each 3.5 x 14 feet. They are titled: “C.S.S. Virginia”; “Hospital Train”; “Colonel John S. Mosby on a Midnight Raid”; and “The Coast Artillery, Confederate Marines”.
Hoffbauer painted on canvas which is tacked to plaster walls behind it.
In some places, the paint has separated from the canvas and only the skin of the paint holds it together, according to Cleo Mullins of Richmond Conservation Studio, who is chief conservator of the project.
Mullins says they are able to inject heat-sensitive adhesive under the loose paint to fix this.
To clean the murals, multiple layers of varnish that were applied over the years have to be removed. After cleaning, acrylic varnish is applied.
“The acrylic should last over 100 years without yellowing,” Mullins says.
The cleaning is revealing elements of the murals that accumulated dirt and dust have hidden for years.
Guild calls the details that are popping out, such as how purple A.P. Hill’s sash is in the Summer mural, “phenomenal.”
That mural faces the visitor upon entering the room. It features a magnificent gathering of Confederate generals, even though no such meeting of these men, as depicted, ever took place.
The 13 readily identifiable generals are, from left to right, John Bell Hood, Wade Hampton, Richard S. Ewell, John B. Gordon, Thomas J. Jackson, Fitzhugh Lee, A.P. Hill, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joseph E. Johnston, George E. Pickett, P.G.T. Beauregard and J.E.B. Stuart.
Other details uncovered include previously unseen people, such as two wounded Confederate soldiers in the Spring mural and a dead Union soldier in the Autumn mural.
One thing that sets apart the “Hospital Train” flank panel is that it is the only mural to include women and African-Americans.
Local Richmonders served as models for some of the people portrayed, Mullins says.
The elderly white man with a goatee, who looks like KFC’s Colonel Sanders, was famous sculptor Edward Valentine, a former president of the VHS.
The gray-haired white woman in the foreground was a secretary and librarian from the nearby United Daughters of the Confederacy national headquarters. She is leaning over a sick young man in a bed, who was her nephew.
The African-American in a red shirt was a porter at the Jefferson Hotel downtown.
Guild relates that when she first started working at the VHS, she was taken to the murals display and asked to spot the one historical inaccuracy.
The answer is found in the “Hospital Train” mural: the telegraph pole has five sets of wires, just right for 1920s telephones but too many for 1860s telegraph lines.
“We don’t know why that mistake was made,” she says.
Modern visitors who aren’t used to seeing public art memorializing the Confederacy need to keep in mind when these murals were painted, Guild says. “There were people still alive who lived through the Civil War.”
The Lost Cause sensibility of the murals reflects the mission of their sponsor, the CMA, Guild notes.
E. Lee Shepard, VHS Vice President for Collections and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist, says the mural collection celebrates the Southern soldier and sailor. “The emphasis is on the valor of the Southern soldier,” he notes.
Hoffbauer’s murals are one of only three such large public Civil War memorial artworks on display, according to Guild. The other two are the cycloramas in Gettysburg and Atlanta.
Rather than being closed from public view during the conservation process, the ongoing work is open for all to see.
“We have made a very conscious effort to make sure everyone can watch this work because you can see the dramatic changes,” Guild says.
The VHS is open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and 1 to 5 on Sunday. Admission is free. For information call (804) 358-4901 or visit www.vahistorical.org/hoffbauer