Painted more than fifty years after the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), Charles Hoffbauer’s Memorial Military Murals are a powerful illustration of how former Confederates wanted the war to be remembered.
Commissioned by the Confederate Memorial Association and completed in 1920, the murals were intended to honor soldiers, sailors, and civilians who supported the Confederate cause and to memorialize those who died.
The murals are evidence of the widespread postwar effort by former Confederates to justify and glorify the Confederacy known as the Lost Cause.
This influential ideology suggested that the war was fought out of noble impulses to preserve states’ rights, but it intentionally denied the central role of slavery as a cause of the conflict, the enduring emotional scars resulting from unprecedented slaughter, and the deliberate suppression of black civil rights through segregation, disenfranchisement, and threats of violence.
As with most monuments and memorials, these paintings tell us more about the intentions and values of the people who created them than about the historical subjects they depict.
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More about Hoffbauer and his murals
Charles Hoffbauer was born in Paris in 1875. He studied under the most famous French artists of the day and achieved widespread recognition for his work, even before his commission from the Confederate Memorial Association. The murals at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture are considered his crowning achievements. In 1941, he escaped occupied France and became an American citizen. He settled first in California, where he worked as an animator for Walt Disney Studios, and then moved to Massachusetts, where he remained until his death in 1957.
A graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Hoffbauer was thoroughly versed in French academic procedures of painting large-scale themes of grandeur and historical importance. In preparing the Memorial Military Murals, he used a full repertoire of those techniques.
Unable to view events fifty years in the past, Hoffbauer by necessity invented the scenes of his murals. His production of imagery was a gradual process. One means by which the artist developed initial ideas of composition was the small ink and watercolor sketch.
No less effective a device in the first stages of development were clay and wood models, which allowed Hoffbauer to invent and refine compositions.
Literally dozens of very small ink and pencil sketches (arranged on matboard by the artist) were a means to develop precise details of imagery. The small sketches were tested on a large scale in some sixty crayon and pastel drawings.
Most of the pastels, like most of the small drawings, are rendered on grids, which routinely were used as a means to enlarge and transfer figures from a small to a large scale. In that process, the detail in each small square of a grid is repeated in the corresponding square of a larger grid.
Though only a means to the end of the finished product of the mural cycle, Hoffbauer's clay models are stunning works of sculpture. Their vigorous and tactile surfaces, animated with light and shadow, are the work of a sensitive artist responsive to his medium in the manner of his famous French and American contemporaries Auguste Rodin and Frederic Remington. The models allowed Hoffbauer to invent and refine compositions. By arranging and rearranging the models, and by looking at these from the low perspective of ground level, the painter could select from seemingly infinite possibilities the most compelling viewpoint from which to stage a scene.
Hoffbauer's models, sketches, and photographs are in the collections of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.