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How artists reported the news—or tried to—in the years before photography
Judith Bookbinder pulls an archival storage box out of a stack of 14 in the cupboard of a storage area at Boston College. The box is pale blue, about three inches deep, 21 inches long, and 18 inches wide. “This is the Becker box,” says the fine arts lecturer, opening it and lifting the glassine sheets that protect the drawings within.
The sketch she takes out first—the box holds nearly 200—was made on October 31, 1864. Rendered in graphite and charcoal on a sheet of smudged, stained paper apparently torn from a sketchbook, it shows a military encampment, with tents in rows in the background and a few soldiers scattered among them, standing and seated. In the foreground is an odd structure, resembling nothing more than a giant cooking spit: two upright 10-foot rails with cleft tops supporting in the air between them another rail around 15 feet long. Seven black men, all in hats, perch on the suspended rail. Two of them are playing cards, another pair sit back to back, apparently oblivious to the soldier with a bayonet who keeps guard below. On the reverse of the creased drawing are the words “mode of punishing negro soldiers for various offences,” with the date and the artist’s signature. Joseph Becker, 23, sketched the scene at the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia, which lasted from June 1864 to March 1865 during the American Civil War.
Becker’s drawing is one of approximately 650 in an extraordinary cache of previously undocumented eyewitness depictions from the second half of the 19th century. Included are the original sketches of 14 known artist-reporters employed by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, along with the work of many other hands, some known, some still to be identified. One hundred and twenty-five drawings from the Becker Collection (Joseph Becker gathered and preserved all 650) will have their first public viewing in an exhibition titled First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection, at the McMullen Museum, September 5 through December 13.
A long-term employee of Frank Leslie’s pioneering paper—he started as an 18-year-old errand boy in 1859 and went on to become art department supervisor—Joseph Becker was in a unique position to preserve original drawings sent in by artists from the field. Some of these works would likely have been destroyed after serving as the basis for engravings published in the paper; many were never chosen for publication and would have vanished, unrecorded. Instead, they were passed down through Becker’s family for several generations—a family that includes great-great-granddaughter Sheila Gallagher, an assistant professor of fine arts at Boston College. [For an account of the Becker Collection's history and its connections with Boston College, see "Paper Trail" below.] The archive that survives, says Harry Katz, former curator of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress, is a “treasure trove . . . a great boon to scholarship.”
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper began publication in New York City in 1855, as a weekly. Followed soon by Harper’s Weekly and the New York Illustrated News, the paper set the pattern for American pictorial journalism of the era, according to CUNY historian Joshua Brown, in his book Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America (2002). In its first five years, Leslie’s mingled serialized fiction, short stories, and miscellaneous columns with sensational news from around the country and abroad, including the circulation-boosting murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell, a New York dentist, in January 1857, and an effective pictorial campaign highlighting the unhealthy conditions in New York dairies. In the early years, Leslie regularly pirated engravings from the Illustrated London News, but he also employed artist-reporters who provided firsthand accounts of events such as the Pemberton Mill collapse in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in January 1860 and the shoemakers’ strike in nearby Lynn, two months later.
When the Civil War began, Leslie’s and other publications augmented their staffs of salaried artist-reporters with a variety of freelance sketch artists and illustrators—the so-called special artists—to meet the public appetite for visual images of the unfolding tragedy. (Civil War subjects account for about two-thirds of the drawings in the Becker Collection.) After the war, the artist-correspondents turned their eyewitness documentary approach to other stories of national interest: the spread of the railroads, the laying of the transatlantic cable, the “Indian Wars,” and the Chicago Fire of 1871. They delivered glimpses of life outside the American mainstream, in scenes sketched among the Mormons in Utah, Shakers in upstate New York, and Chinese immigrant communities on the West Coast. Before the ascendancy of photography in the 1880s, the illustrated newspapers showed America to Americans, and through engravings variously stilted or vivid, and routinely altered from the original artists’ visual reports, helped to define the self-image of a still-young nation.
Frank Leslie was born Henry Carter, in Ipswich, England, in 1821. He learned his trade in the engraving department—which he would eventually run—of the weekly Illustrated London News (first published in 1842). When he arrived in New York in 1848, he found the U.S. market for pictorial journalism largely untapped. In 1852 he worked briefly as an engraver for the first American illustrated weekly, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, launched in Boston in 1851. Leslie’s first publishing ventures were two illustrated women’s monthly magazines. It was on the basis of their success that he launched Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on December 15, 1855.
Social and technological changes combined to create a fertile environment for Leslie’s and the other illustrated weeklies. Thanks partly to immigration and the acquisition of new territories, the U.S. population had grown four-fold in the first half of the 19th century. By 1850, three-quarters of the nation’s 23 million inhabitants were literate and hungry for information in the form of books, magazines, and newspapers that reached them via expanding systems of roads, rails, and waterways. Innovations in printing, including the steam press, and the conversion to wood pulp from rags in paper-making resulted in cheaper and quicker production processes. And there were more stories to print: By the late 1850s, the telegraph was flashing reports across much of the nation; a short-lived transatlantic cable completed in August 1858 delivered international news for weeks before going dead.
Joseph Becker worked for Frank Leslie’s as a special artist covering the Civil War and, later, westward expansion. He retired in 1900 after running the art department for 25 years. According to Harry Katz, who has written an essay for the McMullen exhibition catalogue, the sketches Becker saved represent the largest known private collection of documentary drawings from the period, a collection second in scale only to that of the Library of Congress. Judith Bookbinder describes the moment when Katz first laid eyes on the Becker Collection’s depictions of the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), sketched in pencil by the Prussian-born, Ohio-based artist Henri Lovie on the smoky Tennessee battlefield: “This is the Holy Grail!” Katz exclaimed. The Shiloh engravings in Leslie’s “became iconic images,” says Bookbinder, but as far as scholars knew, the original drawings had been lost. Now, those familiar engravings of the devastating battle in which 24,000 were killed or wounded can be compared with the artist’s eyewitness accounts.
The prospect of bringing together the originals with the published versions is exciting to scholars. In the mass-produced engravings, says Gallagher, images were standardized, figures lost their individuality, racial stereotypes were often exaggerated, and the stylistic details of individual artists were eliminated. Those first drawings, often rendered in haste under difficult conditions, are the most lively and immediate visual record of the war. To be sure, there are photographic images of the Civil War, notes Gallagher, but photographers of the time could not operate in low light, nor could they capture movement. Wood engravings would dominate printed illustration until advances in photographic technology during the 1880s passed them by.
Disparities between the drawings and engravings were partly a function of a fragmented, time-pressured reproduction process, driven by the commercial need to mass-produce images while events were still topical. They were also the result of editorial judgments—aesthetic and, in a sense, political. Art superintendents chose the sketches from the field to be translated into engravings, and artists in the office drew new, outline versions on paper, often changing the composition to fit the printed page. The outline drawing was then rubbed down in reverse on a block of polished and lightly whitewashed Turkish boxwood cut across the grain, the preferred material for wood engraving. Since boxwood rarely grew more than six inches in diameter, to create full-page and double-page illustrations, the standard practice was to glue small blocks together to make larger surfaces.
Frank Leslie pioneered a method of joining the small blocks—each around two inches square and one inch deep—by a system of sunken nuts and bolts, to make a larger working surface. The blocks could then be unbolted and distributed for detailing among as many as 15 engravers, some of whom had special skills. “Pruners” handled sky and foliage, “tailors” depicted drapery and cloth, and “butchers” delineated features. Many of the original drawings in the Becker Collection show traces of the production process: pin and glue marks in the corners where they were stuck on a board for editorial consideration or copying, grids of penciled lines to guide the copyist, and the word “Used,” to show that an image had been chosen for reproduction. Some also show fold marks indicating that they were sent through the mail. According to Gallagher, the artists would usually mail their sketches back to Leslie’s office, but would on occasion use “chance messengers” such as other correspondents traveling back north, or they would deliver them in person.
During the Civil War, publishers opted to filter the firsthand testimony of artist-correspondents, whose drawings of chaotic battle scenes could be disturbing, and create prints “more palatable” to the general public, according to Nirmal Trivedi, Ph.D.’09, a contributor to the McMullen catalogue who studied some of the Becker drawings for his English dissertation on the 19th-century American illustrated press. The engravings, says Trivedi, tend to monumentalize and sanitize conflict. By contrast, the sketch-artists’ original drawings, with their documentation of carnage and suffering, courage and kindness, fear and on occasion desertion, provide true “microhistories,” he says. As an example, Trivedi compares one of Henri Lovie’s sketches from Shiloh of “General [John Alexander] McClernand’s Second Defense” drawn at Pittsburg Landing on April 6, 1862, with its published counterpart in the May 24 issue of Leslie’s Illustrated. According to the penciled note on the front of the original, Lovie sketched his view “from the hospital on the North East of the open field.” Covered wagons and stretcher-bearers carry the dead and dying away from the battlefield, which is scantily notated in the background. Written notes identify various regiments for the engravers. In the center foreground, a soldier bleeding from the stump of his amputated left arm sags between the supporting arms of two comrades. Another lies face down on the ground while a surgeon kneels beside him. On the left, a wounded man looks up in agony as a surgeon prepares to amputate his arm. In the published version, however, Lovie’s stark narrative is diluted, says Trivedi, as foreground and background are given equal weight by the engraver. The prospective amputee’s face is calm, the hospital wagons appear strong and substantial in the mid-distance, and the trees are leafy and lush on the near horizon. The focus on individual suffering is lost.
Henri Lovie, a professional illustrator and painter and one of the most accomplished artists employed by Leslie’s, encountered the risks common to special artists covering the war. He was questioned several times by Confederate forces, accused of being a spy, and occasionally shot at by sentries, before he decided to retire from the job in 1863. Another Leslie’s artist, Edwin Forbes, recalled his experiences at the second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862): “I was in the hottest of the fire for quite a while. When I attempted to get away I found myself cornered. I started with a party of skirmishers through a dense wood, leading my horse, and after passing under a severe fire of shell, got a safe position.” Beyond the dangers of battle, there were the hardships of cold and heat. On Lovie’s sketch “Pontoon Bridge on the March” made on December 20, 1862, showing a regiment transporting the sections of a bridge to be used in river crossings, the artist’s note to the engravers reads: “Finish this as well as you can, I can only indicate effects. As you will see from the style my fingers are very cold and there is not a drop of ‘the crathur’ [Irish whiskey] in all these piney woods.”
African Americans underwent a striking transformation in their depiction during the war, according to historian Joshua Brown. As blacks fled to Union lines or sheltered Union escapees from southern prisons, Frank Leslie’s and other illustrated periodicals came to support emancipation and the recruitment of African-American troops; and as these newspapers documented the role of African-American soldiers in furthering the war effort, they backed off the most blatant racial caricatures of the pre-war era. Lucia Knoles, professor of English at Assumption College, has studied the 28 drawings featuring African Americans in the Becker Collection, and sees evidence of continuing prejudice and racial stereotyping in tension with the emergence of a more respectful approach.
“As a newspaper driven by the need to please as many people as possible,” says Knoles, “Leslie’s was not motivated to challenge stereotypes.” Just as the paper catered to a wide audience by coupling lurid pictures of bare-knuckle boxing matches with high-minded editorials against such entertainment, its coverage of African Americans was designed to appeal to a broad range of sentiments, with images running from the comic to the heroic. Above all, the drawings in the Becker Collection show formerly enslaved men and women doing hard physical labor. “Almost every black body in a sketch is paired with a pick, a shovel, or a heavy load,” notes Knoles. Special artist Francis Schell’s 1863 “Scene on the Levee at Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” depicts a line of black men weighed down by boxes of ammunition; Joseph Becker’s undated “Union Soldiers Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri,” shows African Americans digging graves.
Knoles contrasts the dignity and natural liveliness of the men dancing in Becker’s original 1864 sketch “The Evening Amusement of the Coloured Servants and Contrabands” with Winslow Homer’s contemporaneous “almost cartoon-like depictions” of dancing and banjo-playing blacks done for Harper’s Weekly, for which he worked as a special artist, although she notes that Leslie’s also published its share of cartoonish dancing African Americans. Becker’s 1864 portrait of “An Army Washerwoman” was surely meant to amuse a white audience with its depiction of a strong-backed black man scrubbing laundry with a washboard and tub.
By far the most positive depictions of African Americans in Leslie’s during the war were those showing black soldiers in action, says Knoles. For example, an engraving made from E.F. Mullen’s 1864 sketch during the Union advance on Petersburg shows black soldiers jubilantly pulling a captured Confederate cannon into camp to the cheers of white soldiers, while the bodies of two African-American soldiers lie dead in the foreground. The front page of the April, 25, 1865, issue of Leslie’s celebrated the entry of the Union Army into Richmond earlier that month with a picture of battle-hardened black veterans marching through the ruins, welcomed by crowds of African-American men, women, and children, in seeming affirmation of Frederick Douglass’s opinion that once “the black man” has fought for the Union, “no power on earth can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
After the Civil War ended, Leslie’s saw a precipitous decline in circulation, from around 200,000 in 1861 to 50,000 in 1865, owing partly to the wartime inflation that raised production and labor costs and led to price increases. Where was the illustrated press, which “drew its lifeblood from crisis,” according to Brown, to look for material now that the conflict was resolved? Expansionism, exoticism, and disaster proved to be profitable areas, and Frank Leslie dispatched Joseph Becker to cover them all. Becker’s reportorial trips took him to Ireland to record the start of yet another failed attempt at a transatlantic cable in 1865, and in late 1869, months after the transcontinental railroad link was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, across the West to record the landscape of the Great Plains and the fanning out of the railroads. In 81 hours Becker traveled from Omaha to San Francisco on the first Pullman train to cross the Rockies. Arriving in San Francisco, he sketched scenes of immigrant life in the Chinese community for a Leslie’s series called “Across the Continent.”
As Becker recalled in a 1905 interview: “Mr. Leslie commissioned me to go to California to portray the Chinese who had come over in large numbers to build the Union Pacific Railway. These people were then a novel addition to our population, and Mr. Leslie planned a ‘scoop’ on our competitors.” Becker brought his pencil and paper into Chinese-American stores, cultural and community centers, and opium dens and sent back intimate and detailed images. By contrast, notes Gallagher, “all the photos we have of late 19th-century San Francisco are exteriors.”
The biggest post-war boost to Leslie’s came from the paper’s graphic coverage of the Chicago Fire of 1871, which sent circulation soaring to an unprecedented 470,000. The fire raged for 27 hours and destroyed 17,450 buildings, virtually the entire business district. Leslie’s published dramatic panoramic views of the ravaged wooden city based on photographs by William Shaw. These were complemented by images documenting the human and commercial toll, based on sketches by Becker and James E. Taylor.
Taylor was a Notre Dame graduate who began submitting sketches to Leslie’s while serving as a Union soldier during the war. In Chicago, he recorded scenes of families applying for relief at the Charity Building, businessmen hauling their safes from the ruins with a double team of oxen, and women volunteers sorting donated clothing in the West Side Skating Rink. Becker sketched scenes in the chapel at Grace Church showing “the poor people burnt out by the fire” receiving food and preparing for bed in their temporary accommodation.
The following year, Becker brought his sympathetic gaze to bear on the Shaker community of New Lebanon, in upstate New York. The 14 prints based on his drawings that appeared in Leslie’s that winter give the most detailed visual information available about the Shaker way of life of the period, says Shaker historian Robert Emlen of Brown University. By the time of Becker’s visit, says Emlen, Shaker numbers were declining, and the aging celibate communities were keen to present the material benefits of their life to potential recruits. Becker enjoyed unparalleled access to the Shakers’ private living space, and was able to make drawings of their sleeping quarters and kitchens as well as their meeting rooms and schoolroom. Now, with the discovery of four of Becker’s original drawings, Emlen is struck by what more can be learned. He points to a graphite and white gouache drawing of a male Shaker sitting by the woodstove in the men’s sleeping room. Below the characteristic peg rail that runs round the room a couple of inches down from the top of the window, the walls are covered with a light-colored cloth, on which a faint, squared pattern is indicated.
“I’ve been looking at these prints for years. Everything had changed,” says Emlen. In the published print, “the whole room becomes dark,” he notes, and a second, standing figure has been added. The pale wall-hanging appears as a dark plaid, whereas surviving examples of Shaker woven wall-blankets are light in pattern, as shown in the drawing, says Emlen. He suggests that the engravers wanted to make clear the nature of the unusual wall-covering by making it more easily readable.
The Becker Collection also includes the sketches of the soldier-artist Adolphus H. Von Luettwitz. Documenting the war between the United States and the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne in 1876–77, these sketches were never published and have never been exhibited before their inclusion in the McMullen show. In content and style, they are among “the most radical” of the collection, says Nirmal Trivedi. A Prussian (and eventual Kansan) who fought with the 54th New York Volunteers during the Civil War, Von Luettwitz was among many artists who submitted uncommissioned sketches to Leslie’s in the hope of getting published. As a first lieutenant in the Third Cavalry, he took part in the Battle of Slim Buttes on September 9–10, 1876, in the Dakota Territory (near present day Reva, South Dakota), during the campaign to secure the Northern Plains for the laying down of railroads. A detachment of soldiers, desperate for food, looted a Lakota village, and in the course of the fighting Von Luettwitz was shot through the knee, forcing doctors in his party to amputate his leg.
In a two-dimensional style, Von Luettwitz sketched scenes illustrating the crude medical treatment he received. His drawing “Sled for Slightly Wounded Men” shows a wounded man being transported by travois, the wood-frame and harness contraption Northern Plains Indians used to drag heavy loads, which was used by the Army during the Indian campaign as an ambulance. Von Luettwitz notes on the drawing that the sled “is called by the soldiers the ‘Bumper.’ It bumps continually & therefore keeps the inmate comfortable and wide awake.” Another drawing contrasts a well-fed Army surgeon with a skeletal contract doctor who traveled with the troops to provide immediate aid and who is carrying a case bearing the words “Pain Killer.” Strikingly different in tone from the realist aesthetic favored by Frank Leslie’s, Von Luettwitz’s sardonic sketches hint at a narrative at odds with the prevailing story of national progress put forward in the paper’s pages.
For scholars, students, and history enthusiasts, the Becker Collection will stand as what Harry Katz calls a “revelation.” If Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper held up a mirror to the American people as they were in the process of defining themselves, the drawings preserved by Joseph Becker offer a view behind the mirror, of complex realities and competing agendas, and of the choices Leslie and others made in their quest to win readers while delivering the news.
Jane Whitehead is a writer in the Boston area.
There were no children’s toys or games at Elise Simonds’s formal, sprawling house in East Hampton, New York. So when Sheila Gallagher and her sister visited their great- “Aunt Lassie” as children, they often entertained themselves by playing hide and seek. Now an artist and member of the fine arts faculty, Gallagher remembers hiding in a large closet off Aunt Lassie’s bedroom. There she found an old black hardboard portfolio stuffed with drawings by her aunt’s grandfather Joseph Becker (1841–1910), an artist and later art department supervisor for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. (Elise Simonds had inherited the collection from her mother, Becker’s eldest daughter.) On visits to East Hampton, Gallagher looked forward to browsing through those battered pencil drawings of Civil War battles and San Francisco’s Chinatown, so different from Becker’s later cheery watercolors of landscapes and birds that hung in her parents’ house.
When, in the early 1990s, Gallagher’s mother inherited the approximately 650 drawings by Becker and other
artist-reporters whose work he saved, they were in cardboard boxes, largely uncatalogued and unidentified. The collection was sent to the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to be researched and archived. Over two years, the drawings were photographed and the annotations on them transcribed, but they were poorly stored, each sandwiched in a manila envelope with its respective photograph and photocopy—an acid environment that Sheila Gallagher saw at once was a “conservation disaster.” She whisked the fragile drawings back to Boston in 1997.
On her mother’s behalf, in 1998, Gallagher hired a local art historian, Natasha Seaman, to conserve the collection. Together they devised a system for cataloguing the drawings in compliance with Library of Congress standards. Seaman created a database and catalogued more than three-fifths of the Civil War drawings, before the funds set aside by the family for the project ran out.
In the winter of 2005, Gallagher brought the drawings to her Boston College colleague Judith Bookbinder, an Americanist in the fine arts department. Over the next four years, with the help of undergraduate interns, the two catalogued virtually all the remaining drawings. In Spring 2009, they taught a course, “Firsthand: Civil War Era Drawings,” in which students were assigned to track down clues to unidentified artists using the illustrated weeklies and other publishing outlets of the day.
In collaboration with the O’Neill Library and the University’s technology design group, Gallagher and Bookbinder set up a digital archive to safeguard and store data relating to the collection in perpetuity at Boston College. From this they created a public website (http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/) that offers images of all the drawings, together with basic information and artist biographies.
Some 125 of the sketches will be loaned to the McMullen Museum for the fall 2009 exhibition “First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection,” which will open September 5. The ultimate destination of the Becker Collection is yet to be decided. Gallagher hopes that her mother will bequeath these “fragile national treasures” to an institution where they can be safeguarded for future generations, possibly the Library of Congress or the Boston Athenaeum. “My desire for the collection,” she says, “is that it be known, that it be accessible to scholars and enthusiasts, [and] that it becomes part of our national visual historical consciousness.”
Read more by Jane Whitehead